1893: Sweet Vanilla Salt

I started watching Toradora! after finishing Golden Time because it’s an earlier work by the latter’s writer, and as my posts from a short while back will attest, I enjoyed the latter very much indeed.

I knew nothing about Toradora! going in save for the fact that it was well-regarded by quite a few people (the exception being Andie’s sister, who thought it was “tripe”, but conceded that she was not the target audience) and it had even been a “jumping-on” point to anime for a lot of people. So I was confident it would at least be an entertaining watch if nothing else.

Toradora! tells the story of the relationship between the “Dragon” and the “Tiger”, better known as protagonist Ryuji and leading lady Taiga. Neither of these are typical leads according to slice-of-life/romance anime tropes: Ryuji is (at least initially) feared by his classmates for his sour-faced, intimidating appearance — a genetic inheritance from his father, whom it seems is no longer around thanks to seemingly being involved in some questionable activities — while Taiga is… well, she’s very short, and not at all happy about it, particularly as the combination of her height, slight figure and somewhat petulant tendencies tend to make her come across as considerably younger than she actually is.

Ryuji and Taiga are brought together by their attraction to each other’s friends; Ryuji likes Taiga’s friend Kushieda who, as a spunky, loud genki girl is the polar opposite of Taiga in terms of personality, while Taiga likes Ryuji’s friend Kitamura. Ryuji discovers Taiga is living a somewhat lonely existence in the apartment building next to his house: she’s living all alone in an apartment too big for her, and clearly doesn’t know how to take care of herself. Ryuji, having had to be the “man of the house” for some time thanks to his departed father and his dirty stop-out of a mother, takes it upon himself to look after her, cooking her meals and helping her out with all sorts of domestic chores.

Unfortunately, this, of course, leads to misunderstandings when people see them together, and this in turn makes their pursuit of their prospective paramours somewhat more challenging. I have little doubt that the two of them will end up with one another by the end of the series — though I will be pleasantly surprised if the show goes another route — because they complement one another nicely. Taiga doesn’t show any fear towards Ryuji and sees him for who he is; at the same time, Ryuji manages to bring out a side of Taiga she doesn’t show many people: an honest, frank and vulnerable side. It’s a rocky relationship, to be sure, but it has the makings of an entertaining watch indeed.

As I said above, I’m only four episodes in so far, but I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s sharply written, with some genuinely funny moments, and the cast of characters all have their own little surprises that defy the initial impressions they might make. I’m intrigued to see where it goes and how the relationships depicted in the show develop over time, and can already appreciate why this is such a well-regarded series.

1892: Shrunken

Slimming World meeting tonight, and I’d lost another 2.5lbs this week. That means for the last 9 weeks I’ve consistently been losing weight, and I’ve now lost a little over 2 stone in total.

To say I’m pleased is an understatement. I still have a long way to go, of course, and I intend to keep doing what I’m doing as it seems to be working, but it’s been heartening to see the lifestyle changes I’ve made since joining the programme having a noticeable and positive effect.

There’s a few major changes to what I was doing before that have taken some adjusting to, but which are now fairly comfortably part of my usual routine. Firstly, I’ve cut right back on dairy; I used to drink a lot of milk which, of course, has its own health benefits, but which is also calorific and packed with fat. I’ve never been a mega-fan of cheese — I like it well enough, but I can happily live without it — so that’s been fairly straightforward to cut out, too. Instead, using the Slimming World “Healthy Extra” system, I limit myself to one latte in the morning (with 250ml milk measured) or 30g of cheese in a meal. I can spend some “Syns” to have both in a single day — I did tonight, in fact — but I’m now pretty much in the habit of keeping my dairy intake controlled.

Secondly is keeping an eye on what I drink, as this is probably where a lot of calories have snuck up on me in the past. I like to drink cold drinks, particularly cans, so I’ve switched exclusively to diet or “Zero” drinks instead of the Fat Cokes I used to enjoy. I’m still not a huge fan of Diet Coke, but other diet versions of popular drinks have proven surprisingly palatable. I actually think I prefer Diet Pepsi to regular Pepsi and Pepsi Max now, and Fanta/Sprite/Lilt/Dr Pepper/Irn Bru Zero are all pretty much indistinguishable from the “real thing”, and those are all drinks I like, so the fridge is kept well-stocked with those for when I want a cold drink, and it’s squashes or water at other times.

Thirdly is the aforementioned “syns”, keeping an eye on what other things I’m eating over the course of the day. The nice thing about Slimming World is that a lot of food is “free” (i.e. you can have as much as you like — and this includes stuff like pasta, rice and lean meat) but you also have the flexibility to use these “syns” to slip some extra stuff in there, too. (The “syn” part is from “synergy”, not “sin”; they’re supposed to complement the “free” foods and fill in the gaps for a balanced diet with things like sugar, fat and whatnot — the things that can easily get out of control, but which are still necessary for a decent diet.) Checking syn values of various foods has been eye-opening, and also helps me to make better choices when things are on offer. This doesn’t mean I can’t treat myself — indeed, when I went over to Boston for PAX, I pretty much took a few days completely off from the programme as it simply wasn’t practical to follow when I didn’t have full control over what I’d be eating — but it does mean that I can think more carefully about what I’m eating and drinking.

So it’s going well so far. I’m sure the weight loss will slow down or even stagnate at some point, but it’s encouraging that I’ve managed to lose so much so (relatively) quickly. A few people have commented that they can see the difference, and for once, I think I can, too. I’m still not happy with my body — I have a lot of weight to lose — but I’m happier with it than I was nine weeks ago, and hopefully that pattern will continue. Whether I’ll make it into the realm of the normal-sized people I don’t know — genetically, the odds are stacked somewhat against me — but I can but continue trying.

1891: Fragile Dreams

I fancied playing something a bit… different tonight, so I went to my shelves, bulging with backlog bounty, and looked at a few possible titles to give a go to. I didn’t feel like starting a traditional RPG just yet, so quite a few things were out, but my eye eventually stopped on a Wii title I knew nothing about but owned a copy of: Namco Bandai’s Fragile Dreams.

You may wonder why I own a copy of a game I know nothing about. Well, it was from a while back, when UK retail chain Game was in a bunch of trouble and looked like it might be folding; they were selling off a ton of their stock at ridiculously low prices, so I took the opportunity to grab lots of things that looked even a little bit interesting with a mind to eventually playing them at some point in the future. Fragile Dreams was one of them.

So how is it? Well, pretty damn cool so far. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think it was a feels-heavy action-RPG survival horror adventure game featuring the same “your Wii Remote is a torch” mechanic that worked so well in Silent Hill Shattered Memories. There’s actually a touch of Silent Hill in the game’s atmosphere, though in the case of Fragile Dreams it’s not so much about psychological horror as an ever-present sense of loneliness and abandonment.

At the outset of the game, the old man whom protagonist Seto has been living with dies, leaving him all alone in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic landscape. We don’t know anything about what has happened to humanity as the game begins, but little bits and pieces are revealed as you make your way through the game, both through elements of the environment that can be examined and “memory items” that allow you to hear the final thoughts of the world’s former inhabitants when you take a rest to restore your HP and save.

Seto isn’t completely alone in the world, despite initial appearances. Very early on, he encounters a silver-haired girl and proceeds to spend the next few hours (and, I’m guessing, going by my experiences so far, most of the game) chasing after her in an attempt to find out who she might be. Along the way he encounters some sort of sentient computerised backpack with mild self-esteem issues called PF, a not-quite-human person called Crow, a dead little girl with a penchant for cheating at hide-and-seek… and I don’t doubt there will be more strange and wonderful characters to encounter before the story has reached its conclusion.

It’s been a really interesting ride so far. The combat kind of sucks, but it’s a relatively minor part of the game, and the “survival horror” elements of having limited inventory space and weapons that have finite usage before they break add a bit of tension to the experience. It’s not been particularly scary so far, despite the presence of ghosts and whatnot, but it has been thought-provoking and emotional, even just four or so hours in. The emphasis appears to be more on the general atmosphere and feelings of loneliness than on outright trying to scare and disturb the player, and I’m fine with that.

There’s a lot of subtle charm to the game, too. Seto is just a kid forced to find his own way in the world well before he would have normally had to, and while he handles his task with a certain degree of maturity that you might not expect from someone whose voice hasn’t broken yet, his childlike qualities come through in game elements such as the automap which, rather than being a bland, clinical but clear affair, is presented as childish scribblings, complete with notes and doodles about scary and awesome things you’ve come across in your travels. Likewise, the baffling inclusion of lots of cats around the game world who can be tempted to come and play with you through the use of a cat toy makes for a welcome break from hitting ghosts with improvised weaponry, or trying to track down that one key you really need right now.

There’s clearly a lot about Fragile Dreams I don’t yet understand. But I’m very glad I chose to take a chance on it and see what it was all about; it’s shaping up to be a fascinating, deeply memorable experience. I hope it manages to keep this up until the end.

1890: Nael deus Defeated

A group of friends and I (including Andie) reached a milestone in our Final Fantasy XIV careers this evening: we defeated Turn 4 of the Second Coil of Bahamut, also known as “Turn 9″ owing to it being the ninth in the series of thirteen high-level raid encounters that make up Final Fantasy XIV’s endgame.

FFXIV’s endgame raid is split into three main parts. The Binding Coil of Bahamut (which consists of Turns 1 to 5) is mostly — mostly – trivial in terms of difficulty these days owing to the fact that the average gear level of a level 50 character who plays a reasonable amount each week now exceeds the level these encounters were designed for by a considerable margin. As time has gone on, The Binding Coil of Bahamut has also been “nerfed” in terms of mechanics — i.e. made easier — and parties challenging it are now given a substantial buff to their HP, damage dealt and healing when they walk in, though those looking for a bit more of a challenge can optionally turn this buff off.

The Binding Coil of Bahamut reaches its conclusion with Turn 5, a notoriously difficult fight that sees a party of eight taking on Twintania, a very angry dragon. Turn 5 remains a challenge for many groups to this day not because Twintania is particularly difficult to kill in terms of her HP and damage — the aforementioned gear issue here makes the encounter much easier than it once was — but because everyone in the group needs to have a solid understanding of most of the fight’s mechanics in order to succeed. Again, the power creep has meant it’s easier to recover from critical errors, but if you don’t know how to deal with her notorious Divebomb attack, for example, you’re going to die and quite possibly take the rest of the group with you.

The Binding Coil of Bahamut is followed up by the Second Coil of Bahamut, which consists of Turns 6 to 9. These are significantly more challenging, even with the “Echo” buff to player HP, damage and healing. Mechanics are more unforgiving — though again, a number have been nerfed over time — and they’re still not exactly the sort of encounters you can pick up and expect to coast your way through without knowing anything about them. Groups need to work together and be able to communicate effectively in order to pass through these challenges, and it all comes to a head with Turn 9.

Turn 9 remains notorious as one of the hardest fights in the game, even with the Final Coil of Bahamut subsequently being added after it. It proves to be a considerable roadblock to many groups, and indeed our party has been working on beating it for many weeks now.

The reason why it’s such a challenge — even more so than Turn 5 — is because of its extreme complexity. In this one fight, which takes in the region of 10 minutes to complete, there are roughly as many mechanics as you’d see in at least four separate boss encounters earlier in the game. There is a lot to learn, and it feels like an insurmountable challenge the first time you jump in, but as our group have proven tonight, taking it a step at a time and practicing together whenever we get the opportunity allows you to eventually reach success.

And my God what a wonderful feeling it was as that HP bar dropped to 0% tonight. We’d had several close calls earlier in the evening — first a 9%, then a 10%, then a 6% — but there was no guarantee that we were going to beat it. But beat it we did, and many celebrations were had; now we have until June to make it through the Final Coil of Bahamut before the expansion pack Heavensward comes along and gives us an entire new raid set in Alexander to take on.

I’m looking forward to the challenge. The feeling of jubilation at finally defeating this notoriously difficult boss this evening is unlike pretty much anything I’ve ever experienced in any other game — and at least part of that comes from the game’s multiplayer element. It wasn’t just my victory, it was our victory. We worked together, we practiced, we communicated, and eventually we prevailed. And it felt great.

We poked our head into the first turn of Final Coil this evening, but didn’t get anywhere, as expected. That’s an adventure for another day! In the meantime, here’s our clear video:

1889: My Dear Ninjas

Having finished Criminal Girls, I was all set to make a start on Hyperdevotion Noire, a game that I’ve been very excited to play for quite some time. But I didn’t; I decided I should try and clear out some of the games I’ve left half-finished first, the main one being Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus.

Shinovi Versus is an underappreciated little diamond in the Vita library. It’s an enjoyably over-the-top 3D action game vaguely in the vein of Dynasty Warriors (in that in a number of levels you hack and slash your way through hundreds of enemies, and your combo count frequently reaches the thousands) but also providing a fun take on fighting in 3D.

There are two… well, maybe three core appeal elements when we’re talking about Senran Kagura, and Shinovi Versus in particular. The first is, of course, the fanservice element; let’s not beat around the bush here, it’s the reason the series exists in the first place. The girls are pretty, their boobs are jiggly, the costumes are sexy and as you fight, they get ripped. Despite the girls technically being ninjas and using a variety of rather painful-looking implements to battle one another, no-one ever seems to really get hurt or killed; the main damage anyone suffers is to their pride, since a well-timed Ninja Art at the conclusion of a bout can cheerfully whip off the underwear of your opponent, leaving them in no doubt as to who is the winner.

But anyway. The two main things I wanted to talk about were the narrative and the mechanics. The narrative I’ve already talked about in past posts: considering the game is regarded by outsiders as little more than gratuitous fanservice, if you’re unfamiliar with it you may be surprised to note that the series features some excellent characterisation, including characters with genuine development and growth over the course of their stories. It’s a game that’s not afraid to juxtapose the serious and the absurd, either; while the main storylines for each of the four “schools” involved in the overall plot are fairly serious in tone, the girls’ individual stories are more light-hearted in nature, leading to some ridiculous situations. It effectively allows us to see the cast “at work” and “at play”, and it gives us a pretty good picture of who they all are as people.

Mechanically, the game is a delight. The control scheme is simple to understand, but the depth comes from the wide variety of characters and how very differently from one another they all handle. Some are friendly to simple button-mashing — Asuka is a good example, particularly once she unlocks her spinny death tornado move — while others demand mobility, observation, timing and sometimes unconventional tactics. By the end of your time with the game, you’ll have at least one “favourite” character, both in narrative terms and mechanically, too.

It’s a game bursting with content. There are four separate “episodes” to the story, each focusing on a different main cast, and each has a different tone. The scenes involving characters returning from Senran Kagura Burst on the 3DS are heartwarming, while the scenes involving new characters give us a good idea of what makes the newcomers tick. Depending on which order you choose to play the stories, you’ll meet all the characters from several different perspectives, and between all these angles — and side missions like the girls’ individual stories — you’ll get a solid understanding of who everyone is and how they all relate to one another.

Not bad for a fanservice-heavy hack and slash. I’m pleased to be rediscovering it now that Criminal Girls is done and dusted, and looking forward to spending some time with the characters I don’t know all that well yet.

1888: Put the Phone Down

I’m coming to detest my phone, not necessarily for what it is, but for what it’s done to me.

I don’t specifically mean my actual phone, either; more the general concept of smartphones and the “always-connected” nature of modern existence.

I don’t even specifically object to the “always-online” nature of modern society, more the habits — or, more accurately, compulsions — that it tends to instill in people. I’ve become very conscious of my own compulsions in this regard recently, and I’m making an effort to try and change my habits.

Here’s the problem for me: picking up a phone and fiddling with it (usually checking Twitter and/or Reddit) has become a default thing to do if no better activity is available. Phones are great for that; with the wide variety of apps available these days, there’s something sure to distract and entertain even the most attention-deficient individual, even if only for a few seconds. That “even if only for a few seconds” thing can become a problem, though; the fact a phone can fill an empty few seconds easily means that it’s easy to reach for it while you’re in the middle of something else, breaking your concentration and perhaps immersion.

I became particularly conscious of it while I was playing Criminal Girls the other day. (Side note: I’ve now completely finished that, so expect a comprehensive writeup on MoeGamer very soon.) I noticed that even mid-battle, I was reaching for my phone and fiddling with it while animations were playing, or sometimes between turns. There was no good reason for it, either; I wasn’t particularly interested in what Twitter had to say at that moment, and I was genuinely enjoying the game. It was just a nigh-uncontrollable compulsion to reach for it and look at it.

It happens in the night sometimes, too. I can’t get to sleep, so I pick up the phone and look at whatever vapid nonsense social media is spewing at any given hour. There’s rarely anything meaningful — although there’s occasionally an enjoyable late-night conversation with some of my friends in other timezones — and it doesn’t really have any value; it certainly doesn’t help me get to sleep when I find myself mindlessly refreshing for minutes at a time instead of putting the damn thing down, closing my eyes and trying to disconnect from the stimuli of the outside world.

So I’m trying to stop myself from doing these things. When I’m sitting down to play a game, unless I’m specifically intending on “liveblogging” my experiences as I play, I’ve started putting my phone out of reach or, at the very least, covering it over so I can’t see the notification light and screen. When I go to bed, I’ve started switching my phone off altogether rather than just leaving it in standby mode. And while a phone is a convenient thing to fiddle with to stave off social anxiety when dealing with other people face-to-face, I’m going to try and make an effort to keep it in my pocket unless it becomes clear that I really am surplus to requirements in a particular social situation. (Not necessarily in a negative way; I may just be along for the ride while others are discussing making arrangements for something or other that doesn’t directly involve me, for example.)

I feel like smartphones have done serious damage to our collective concentration spans over the last few years. And I’m quite keen to get mine back.

1887: Fading Gold

Finished watching the romance anime Golden Time today. It was a quiet day, so I marathoned the last few episodes — though at a little over 20 minutes apiece, it wasn’t really much of a “marathon”, I guess. Still, I have now watched the entire series and feel a little more qualified to comment on the whole thing.

I enjoyed it a lot overall. Its biggest strengths come from its more unconventional characteristics: a protagonist (Banri) that’s a little more fleshed out than your average self-insert leading man found in a lot of other romantic anime and visual novels; a heroine (Koko) who, although certainly physically attractive, is presented from the outset to be a little, to put it politely, “difficult” (and consequently, perhaps, to some, a little less desirable than she perhaps might have otherwise been); an amnesia backstory that isn’t used as a crutch for the whole show, but instead as an interesting source of conflict; and a fast-moving, pacy plot in which something of significance happens in every episode.

The last few episodes do meander a bit more than those that had come previously, as it becomes time to finally resolve the amnesia plot. The meandering comes from said plot being wrapped up fairly comprehensively, however; the payoff is very much worth it, with some emotional final scenes and a satisfying conclusion to the whole run that gives everything a pleasing sense of closure.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the end, as it happened. The tone of the show is interesting; comedic one minute, very serious the next. It’s effective in making the situations depicted feel fairly down to earth and realistic, and a probably intentional side effect was that I spent the entire run wondering if things would end neatly or very, very badly, because there was the potential for it to go either way right up until the last moments. You’ve probably already inferred which way it went from my comments above, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll refrain from spoiling how it all ends for now.

There are some great side characters supporting the main cast. Protagonist Banri’s childhood friend Linda is a very likeable “other woman” throughout, for example, but the potential angst she could have generated is kept on a tight leash: it’s explored, and features a number of touching scenes (and one surprisingly sexy one), but it doesn’t force the show into a cliched love triangle situation. Instead, Linda is depicted as an interesting, sympathetic character in her own right who plays her role in the story of Banri and Koko’s love without derailing it.

Probably the highlight of the supporting cast is “2D-kun”, though. Initially introduced as the stereotypical glasses-wearing otaku character, 2D-kun repeatedly proves himself throughout the series to be a true friend for Banri, as well as exhibiting considerably more character depth than the usual “hurr, hurr, I like 2D girls” this type of character is often limited to. Indeed, he plays an absolutely crucial role in the final moments of the series, and his contribution here makes him a worthwhile — and, judging by comments on Crunchyroll, beloved — addition to the cast.

Overall, I enjoyed it a great deal, then, and thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for an enjoyable anime series with interesting, realistically flawed characters and a somewhat unconventional take on the usual romance formula. Well worth your time.