Mangaka: Yuki Midorikawa
Status: Ongoing (currently 22 volumes)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
For his entire life, Takashi Natsume has been able to see yokai, and it’s brought him little but trouble–especially since his parents’ death. He’s been shipped between relatives who don’t really want him, who find him odd at best or a liar more often than not. It’s been a life that has led him to be withdrawn, to hide who he really is and what he sees. But when he moves in with an older couple of distant relatives who legitimately seem to want him, things begin to change. Natsume starts making friends at school. What’s more, he inherits an old book from his grandmother, Reiko Natsume, who he finds was also able to see yokai. In fact, possession of this book brings him into contact with even more yokai than before, including one that has gotten itself stuck in the form of a maneki neko who sticks around . . . to protect him and the book (and to raid free food from him). As time goes on, Natsume finds himself building true connections to those around him, both human and yokai, as well as to the memories of his grandmother Reiko.
Natsume’s Book of Friends is such a delightfully different manga that it’s difficult to truly explain. It’s shoujo, even though the main character is a boy, and that combination sets the story up to be very different than it would be if it were shounen (more action-y) or if the main character were female (where it would likely be more of a romance). As it is, it’s perfect, going more into Natsume’s sense of isolation at first and into his growing connections as time goes on. He grows in his understanding of Reiko as well, seeing memories of her through the Book of Friends. It’s also really neat to see him growing in confidence and conviction as the story progresses. I guess just in general there’s a lot of character growth developed in this manga, which I really love. Plus, Natsume just has an interesting personality, kind of blunt, actually–but it works and is enjoyable to read without being too overpowering for the story. The general atmosphere of this story is gentle, tranquil, even in the places where there’s action or peril. Plus, the softness of the illustrations helps to draw out this quality in the manga even more. It makes for a pretty relaxing read. One thing I didn’t care for quite so much in the earlier volumes is that it is extremely episodic–to the point of repeating the whole entry sequence for each chapter and having the chapters not connect at all. I get that this was intentional based on how the manga was originally published, but it’s a bit annoying to read. But this reduces significantly as you get further into the story, to the point that you have multiple-chapter story arcs and such–much more engaging to read at that point. Honestly though, even that episodic nature is a minor distraction to how generally enjoyable and peaceful this story is on the whole, and I would highly recommend this series.
Status: Ongoing (currently 4 volumes)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Rin loves solo camping, and even though she’s only in high school, she’s already made numerous camping trips on her own. The quiet, the beauty of the scenery, the delicious camp food . . . it’s all quite enchanting. On one camping trip, Rin encounters another student, Nadeshiko, who is about as bubbly and enthusiastic as Rin is calm and collected. Yet the two quickly form a fast–if unusual–friendship, texting back and forth, trading camping advice, and sending pictures of places they’ve gone. Sometimes they even go camping together with Nadeshiko’s outdoor club from school, which is fun too, if a different sort of fun from the camping to which Rin is accustomed.
Laid-Back Camp is a very unusual but charming manga. It’s very chill–the “laid-back” in the title is quite appropriate. There’s a seinen flavor to the story, even though the main characters are all high-school girls. And it’s a very cute, fun story revolving around Rin and Nadeshiko in their separate camping-related endeavors (Rin’s solo camping trips to fabulous locales, Nadeshiko’s goofing around with her school club, shopping trips to camping supply stores, and group camping trips) while also developing the unusual friendship between these two. The other side of this manga is that it is, in fact, a camping manga. Which doesn’t mean you have to like camping or be interested in it to enjoy the story; it’s cute and fun either way. But if you are interested, the manga actually provides a lot of information–comparing camping supplies based on cost and utility, describing various sorts of campsites, even going over camp-friendly recipes. It’s pretty cool, giving lots of info without obnoxiously overriding the story. I’ve really enjoyed reading Laid-Back Camp and look forward to reading future volumes of it.
Created by Grant Howitt
The honey convention is in town, and you–a bear–have one goal in mind: get the honey! Your have a complex, perfectly planned strategy. There’s just one complication . . . you’re a bear. Test your skills, see whether you’ve got what it takes to be a criminal, and look out for extra-special prizes (and cool hats). But be wary, because there may be a few less-pleasant surprises as well.
I recently got a chance to try out this (rather absurd) tabletop RPG and found it to actually be great fun. It’s definitely more crackish and cartoony than most of your RPGs–the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, Dread. But the utter ridiculousness of it is a lot of what makes it fun as players try to figure out how to accomplish complex thievery as bears; as you can imagine, the potential problems are limitless, as are the possibilities for absurd solutions to said problems. The actual gameplay dynamics are pretty simple, so this isn’t technically hard to play. I would recommend playing with a group that favors lots of role-playing, that has a good sense of humor, and that doesn’t get too bent out of shape over the rules. This is the sort of game that is much more fun if you just roll with the craziness. As with Dread, Honey Heist is a one-shot sort of game, not really suited for campaign sorts of play, but as a short afternoon/evening’s game, I would definitely recommend giving it a try.
Note: You can find gameplay/rules at https://www.docdroid.net/KJzmn5k/honey-heist-by-grant-howitt.pdf.
Created by Desert Owl Games & Universal Studios
My rating: 4.5 of 5
An old woman sits by the fireside, telling fairy tales to the children sitting at her feet. Tales of great happenings, like the invasion of the snow queen Freya and her armies. And tales of things smaller but perhaps of no less import. Like the tale of Elizabeth, a young woman who took up her father’s sword after his death and went out into the wilds to seek her missing brothers. Or Marcus, the man she meets in the woods who insists upon accompanying her but keeps many secrets. Perhaps, in the end, all the old woman’s tales are really just a part of a greater story.
The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse is an American visual novel that incorporates a card battle system into the gameplay. It’s a bit different–usually you get one or the other–but in this particular setting it works remarkably well. I should go ahead and say that I’m pretty sure this visual novel is connected to a movie (or movies) which I have never seen. I’m coming at this review purely from having played the game, so if you’ve seen the movie, your perception of the game may be markedly different. . . . I don’t know. Just playing the game, it’s clear that this is very intentionally made to appeal to the largest possible audience–which is both good and bad. Bad in that you don’t get all sorts of fun indie/nerdy jokes and references like you do in games like Impossible Quest. Good in that the gameplay is really polished. Seriously, the card battles are just challenging enough (but if you die, you get another chance, and another), the story flows well with some choices (all of which eventually lead you back to the same story path), and the balance between story and card battles is so natural feeling that it had to have been carefully researched. In other words, this visual novel would be playable even to those who aren’t particularly used to gaming, and it’s got enough variety to be interesting even to those who don’t like to sit still for visual novels. Also, the story is interesting, if a bit predictable, and the art is pretty, although a bit to Disney-esque in the character design for my taste. As a plus, although the game is technically rated teen, I think it’s fairly appropriate for ages 10 or 11 and up–there’s fantasy-style fighting, but it’s fairly clean and appropriate for the most part. All in all, I think The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse is an enjoyable and playable visual novel/game that should appeal to a wide variety of players (although not perhaps to hardcore gamer types). Definitely worth a try.
Note: On the topic of giving the story a try, you can find it on Steam or on the game’s own website. On Steam (where I played) it’s listed as free to play . . . which it is for the first chapter out of five. So fair warning, you can try out the game for free (and there’s enough there to really get a feel for whether you want to play more), but if you decide to play the entire game, it’s about $18 for the whole thing.
Developed by Axel Sonic/Published by OtakuMaker Studio
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Interested in a quirky text-based game filled with wacky humor, snark, and tons of geeky references? Impossible Quest might be just the game for you. In this choose-your-own-adventure game, you are given a text cue and must select from three possible choices to advance through the game. . . . Actually, that sounds kind of boring. If you don’t take into account the hilarity of some of your possible choices, the 100+ possible endings, the frequency of your demise, and the probability of at some point meeting zombies, Nyan Cat, or Doctor Who.
I have really enjoyed playing Impossible Quest, as weird as it may sound. It is a weird game, and it will appeal strongly to certain people while others will likely hate it–it’s just that sort of game. Still, it’s well worth a try (especially at $1.99 on Steam). It has had me laughing, dying, and repeating quite enjoyably. The dying . . . reminds me significantly of Long Live the Queen in that you die, try something different, get a bit further, and die again, having fun even while being infuriated. And the endings themselves are kind of funny in a snarky way. Hey, there are even a few endings in which you survive and escape. Also, the geekiness must be mentioned. Your initial scenarios are A) a dungeon where you may meet trolls, mermaids, and a talking walrus, B) a plane trip complete with zombies and flying cars, and C) a spaceship with most of the usual suspects for that sort of scenario present at one point or another. So yeah, geekiness in the basic setting, but also inserted wherever possible in the text options as well. Very fun! I know Impossible Quest won’t be for everyone, but I would strongly encourage those with geeky leanings to at least give it a try.
By Twelve Tiles
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Bowtie-sporting photographer Whitty Gawship finds herself invited to a wine-tasting party at Sommerhaus, the estate of Professor Chet Chatters. Also attending are leading members of some of the most elite, well-spoken members of St. Lauden society. Actually, Whitty finds their piercing “discourse” somewhat intimidating, although she does pick up some interesting gossip and befriend Seymour, the young master of Saymore house. But in the midst of their socializing, the guests find themselves interrupted by the voice of their (previously absent) host projecting from an unusual device on the wall–a voice that declares Professor Chatters’ intention to keep them all there while he tests his new device on them. Now Whitty must develop her own skills at discourse if she is to successfully unravel what’s going on and how to escape.
Last Word might be the most unique RPG I have ever played. It’s an RPGMaker game, and has the basic controls and such that you’d expect from such. But the entire course of gameplay (which took me about 4 hours to complete) takes place in a small collection of interconnecting rooms, and the majority of the game is social interaction between characters. You explore, gossip with the other guests, and learn about new topics, constantly expanding your perspective on what’s going on and learning some interesting history in the process (well, history of St. Lauden, not actual history, but still). One of the most interesting facets of the game is the “combat” sequences. To advance through the game, you have to engage in “discourse” with various individuals (and you’ll probably have to do it more to level up enough to succeed on the actual target individuals). The actual mechanics of this discourse are pretty interesting, but quite manageable to grasp as well. My one real complaint about the game is that it is voiced–but not with people saying the words, just with a series of “hems” and “haws” that gets really old after the first two minutes of gameplay. Still, on the whole if you’re looking for a different take on the PC RPG, I think Last Word has a lot to offer.
NOTE: Last Word is available on Steam, and you can also find out more about the game on Twelve Tiles’ website.
Created by Sakura River Interactive
My rating: 3 of 5
Sorayama high-school student Justin has always had a knack for computers, and in a country that’s struggling to recover from technological disaster after the Y2K bug hit, that skill is quite an asset. After winning some prize money for a video game he built, Justin decides to make a business of it, designing video games and selling them at conventions around the country. He even ends up hiring some cute classmates, Cleo (an artist) and Aki (a musician as well as a friend who’s always on his case) to help him with the work. Who knows, if he does well enough, Justin might even go into the business full-time after graduation.
So, basically Infinite Game Works Episode 0 is a simulation/visual novel game that follows Justin in his last year or so of high school as he designs video games and interacts with his friends. It’s by the same creators as Fading Hearts, and is set in the same fictional country at the same time. (Actually, Justin even ends up chatting with Ryu online a few times during Infinite Game Works.) The premise of the game was interesting, and the art and music were nice. I think where IG fails a bit is that it’s an early product for the creators and it’s just kind of clunky at times. The story is relatively linear, without many choices (and it’s sometimes hard to tell if the choices even matter). The simulation of game creation was quite functional in its mechanics, but I felt the level was too easy for the amount of time allowed between games. And I kept having this weird malfunction where then screen would black out–although I found that if I minimized the window then opened it again it would auto-correct, so no big. I guess what I’m saying is that, if you’re bored and can get the game inexpensively, it might be a fun way to pass the time, but for most people, I wouldn’t recommend putting a lot of time or money into the game. Still, I actually did enjoy playing Infinite Game Works Episode 0. And I’m excited that Sakura River Interactive is finalizing an Episode 1 that’s a sequel (and is supposed to have fixed a lot of the mechanical bugs); that will be fun to try.
Note: This game is available from Steam and also directly from Sakura River Interactive–I played the version from Steam.