Author Archives: Pete Davison

About Pete Davison

Southampton-based music teacher, writer and enthusiast of Japanese popular culture.

1917: Creative Spark

The concept of machinima — video clips, short films and even full-length movies made using a video game’s engine and assets as the basis — is something that’s fascinated me for a while, but I’ve never really gotten big into it.

In fact, as I alluded to in yesterday’s post, the last time I really did much with anything even remotely resembling machinima was back in the PS1 days, when the then-spectacular open-world driving game Driver came out and shipped with a cumbersome and clunky but hilarious video editor mode, allowing you to create custom replays from your last play session.

My friend Woody and I used to play nothing but “Survival” mode in Driver, which starts you in the midst of a challenging police chase in San Francisco, and tasks you with simply lasting as long as possible before the cops destroy you. More often than not, our attempts to survive were fairly short, but since the game pretty much went balls-to-the-wall crazy in this mode, even a ten-second clip could make for some hilarious footage. Particularly when, as often happened, the somewhat rudimentary physics engine that powered the game went a little awry, sending the player vehicle shooting inexplicably up into the sky and flying for miles before crashing to the ground and, if you were lucky, driving off relatively unscathed.

Some people over the years have done some amazing things with machinima. Shows like Red vs Blue showed that there was life in games like Halo well beyond simply playing them. Tools like Source Filmmaker have enabled people to create movies (and, uh, a frighteningly comprehensive amount of pornography) using beloved characters from games like Half-Life, Left 4 Dead and BioShock.

But, for me, the most consistently entertaining thing about machinima — both making and watching it — is seeing things going horribly wrong in a variety of unexpected ways. It’s what Woody and I used to do with Driver, and it’s a proud tradition that numerous others have continued over the years. Here’s a great example from the Skate series of skateboarding games on console. I can’t take credit for this; it’s a popular (and, judging by the view count on YouTube, somewhat legendary) video by “HelixSnake”.

I mentioned yesterday that Grand Theft Auto V features a video editor mode, much like Driver did, and even shared my first attempt at a video. Since then, I’ve spent a little more time with the facility, and it looks set to provide a lot of fun times in the future.

The best thing about it is that it includes a feature called “Director Mode”, where you’re not tied to the normal rules of the game. You don’t have to play as one of the single-player protagonists or your Online characters. If you want to cause chaos without attracting the attention of the in-game police, for example, you can simply turn them off. You can adjust the time of day. You can make your bullets and even your melee attacks explosive. And you can turn down gravity.

Naturally, the first thing I did upon discovering all of these options was make full use of all of them to produce some sort of horrific monstrosity. And I proudly present the results of said attempts for you today: here is Unprovoked, a short film by me.

Part of the joy of doing something like this is simply trying things out and seeing what happens — a form of “improvisatory theatre”, in a way. In the case of this video, all I did was set the gravity to low and equip myself with explosive melee attacks, then walk up to the poor unsuspecting almost-naked gentleman in the video, kick him and take it from there. The addition of various “emotes” — which can be used in the online mode as a means of expression or simply messing around — makes for a surprising amount of flexibility, too.

Once the footage is recorded, it’s a case of editing it together using something that bears a strong resemblance to “proper” video-editing software, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. You can edit individual clips together into a longer movie with different scenes, and within a single clip you can set keyframes to change camera angles, apply effects and all manner of other things. It’s remarkably simple to use but very powerful, and I’m looking forward to getting to know it a bit better in the coming days and weeks.

Of course, we all know that the majority of the movies I — and, I’m sure, most of the other people who are fiddling with it — will make will involve people flying around in physics-defying, ridiculous situations. But I’m also quite interested to try some things like recording a race in the online mode, or a shootout, or something else “structured”; the level of detail in the graphics and animation in the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V in particular makes for really good-looking movies, and I strongly believe, as I said yesterday, that the Rockstar Editor is going to be big for machinima — if only from a perspective of getting more people experimenting with it.

1916: How an MMO Taught Me to Be a Better Shmup Player, and Other Stories

Today I’ve been playing a few different games, including Grand Theft Auto Online, One Way Heroics and Crimzon Clover: World Ignition.

Before I go any further, I just want to share a video I knocked up in five minutes using GTA’s built-in video editor. I’m looking forward to having a play with this; I haven’t seen an in-game editor so flexible since Driver on the PS1, and my friend Woody and I used to spend hours making ridiculous car chase movies with that.

But GTA is not what I want to talk about today. Rather, I want to talk a little about the last game I mentioned: Crimzon Clover: World Ignition. As you can probably surmise from the overblown title, this is a Japanese game; those of you with particularly strong game genre intuition will also have doubtless correctly identified that it is a shoot ’em up, specifically of the danmaku (bullet hell) variety.

I grabbed Crimzon Clover this week as part of GOG.com’s recent “tower of sales”. They were selling a pack of shoot ’em ups, several of which I’d had my eye on for a while, and one of which (the rather marvellous Astebreed, which was one of the last things I reviewed over at USgamer) I already owned, but it turned out that removing that from the package actually made it more expensive, so now I have two copies. Anyway, I digress; the sale has now ended, but Crimzon Clover is still pretty cheap anyway, so if you’re looking for some fun arcade-style blasting action, you could do far worse than grab a copy — and remember, there’s no shame in playing on “Novice” difficulty, so long as you don’t use the “Continue” function!

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For those who haven’t been following me for a while, are unfamiliar with the modern conventions of the shoot ’em up genre or with Japanese gaming in general, a danmaku shooter is characterised by its extremely hectic patterns of bullets filling the screen which, at first glance, look impossible to avoid. That is, until you realise that the ship you’re flying has a “hitbox” much smaller than its complete sprite, which means you can get away with “grazing” bullets so long as they don’t hit the (usually explicitly visible) hitbox. In fact, some danmaku shooters ever reward you for grazing bullets without being destroyed.

The other defining feature of a danmaku shooter is a somewhat convoluted scoring system. Crimzon Clover is a little more straightforward than some of the more obtuse systems that renowned genre specialist Cave has come out with over the years, but it still requires something of an understanding beyond “shoot everything” in order to get the truly high scores.

But again, chasing high scores isn’t what I wanted to talk about today; instead, I want to talk about something I noticed while I was playing Crimzon Clover earlier today, and that’s the awareness that I suddenly had of myself using disciplines I’d picked up from a completely different game: Final Fantasy XIV.

Crimzon Clover and Final Fantasy XIV would doubtless not appear to have anything in common at first glance, but bear with me. Boil both of them down to their purest essence and they are both games about learning attack patterns and responding to them. Neither of them depend on randomness for the most part, with every encounter instead being meticulously scripted and choreographed down to the last detail; both of them reward taking the time to familiarise yourself with these patterns and know how to deal with them. In other words, knowing your part of the overall intricate dance of death and destruction on the screen.

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This becomes even more obvious when fighting a boss in Crimzon Clover and, indeed, most other danmaku shoot ’em ups. One thing that both Final Fantasy XIV and Crimzon Clover have in common is a phase-based structure for boss fights: the boss uses a certain set of attacks until you damage it a certain amount (or, in some cases, a certain amount of time passes), then it moves on to something else, then perhaps something else, then perhaps something else after that. The most complex fight in Final Fantasy XIV I’ve done to date, for example — The Second Coil of Bahamut, Turn 4 (aka Turn 9, aka Nael deus Darnus) is split across four different phases, each of which is completely different from the last, and each of which requires learning independently of the others.

Crimzon Clover, meanwhile, is no exception to this rule, with bosses having set bullet patterns and special attacks according to which phase you’re on at any time; the one difference is that phase transitions are explicitly marked on the boss’ health bar in Crimzon Clover (and, again, in most other danmaku shmups) while in Final Fantasy XIV it’s a case of learning when the changeovers happen and how to time them so that you and your party are in a good position to deal with them when they happen. (The fact that Crimzon Clover is designed for one or two completely independent players while Final Fantasy XIV is designed for four to eight interdependent players is another difference, of course, but this added complexity is mitigated a little by the fact you’re not dodging literally thousands of bullets at any given moment. At least not in any encounter I’ve challenged so far.)

The thing I became aware of as I had a go at the first few levels of Crimzon Clover today — I haven’t managed to clear the game yet, as it’s pretty tough, even on Novice difficulty! — was that I was using most of the same skills I used while playing Final Fantasy. I was learning to observe patterns and anticipate what came next; I was moving into advantageous positions before all hell broke loose; I was learning from my mistakes rather than becoming frustrated by them.

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These are all skills that, if we pull back and look at a lot of different games, are fairly common. But I’ve become most keenly aware of them while playing Final Fantasy XIV in particular, and it was a little surprising — and pleasing — to be aware of how applicable they were in a “cross-discipline” situation in a completely different game today. (And yes, Dark Souls fans, I know they’re applicable to that game too, but… I just can’t, okay?)

Also, Crimzon Clover is fucking awesome and if you like beautifully slick, gorgeous shoot ’em ups then I recommend you go grab yourself a copy from Steam or GOG.com right now!

1915: Brave New Frontier

I’ve been out of the mobile gaming, umm, game for a while now because my stint working for the now-apparently-defunct Inside Network opened my eyes to the revolting realities of mobile free-to-play games and how people in suits and sneakers genuinely thought that games where you tap on something every two hours and then have to spend money were somehow innovative.

I’ve made no secret of my general distaste for this business model, but having left it alone for a little while, I’ve felt more able to come back and look at some of these games with a slightly less jaded pair of eyes. I looked at one called Valkyrie Crusade over on MoeGamer a while back a year or so ago and was surprised to find myself having a reasonably good time — though at the time of writing, I haven’t touched it for a few months now.

More recently, someone I follow on Twitter had been posting some screenshots and enthusiastic noises about a game called Brave Frontier (iOS, Android), so I decided to download it and give it a shot. It has an appealing, colourful art style with a combination of pixel art sprites and super-deformed chibi-esque character art, and promised to have a little more in the way of “gameplay” than many similar titles, most of which revolve largely around collecting “cards” and then tapping a “Continue” button repeatedly until you run out of energy or patience.

Brave Frontier isn’t massively different from this formula, but the simple addition of a bit of interactivity to the formula immediately makes it a more interesting, enjoyable game that is ideal for dipping into for a few minutes at a time while you’re on the toilet or waiting for public transport.

Here’s how it works. You’re given an initial few units, one of which is reasonably good and the rest of which are a bit shit, but fill out the slots in your party reasonably. You can take these through “quests”, which are sequences of a few battles in a row, culminating in a boss fight. Battles are very simple: you tap on a party member to cause them to attack, and if you time your taps correctly so that multiple units hit at the same time, you cause a “Spark” which deals additional damage. Units also have elemental types that have a significant impact on both attack and defence power.

When all your units have attacked, you get to grab all the goodies that fell out of the enemies while you were clobbering them. These include the game’s various currencies, health points and Brave Burst points, the latter of which fills a gauge and allows a unit to perform its unique special move. Health points and Brave Burst points are assigned randomly so you can’t guarantee a particular unit will be able to perform their Brave Burst on command, but you can force an enemy to drop more of these shards by ordering your party to focus their attacks on a single enemy, cause an “Overkill” and obtain additional rewards. This, of course, leaves them open to attack from the remaining enemies.

You repeat this process through a series of battles, with your units not automatically healing or recharging between. You fight a boss — most of which so far haven’t been significantly tougher than the main enemies — and then you get rewards, which include materials and additional units.

Outside of quests, you can “fuse” units together to level them up — they don’t gain experience simply through battle like in a regular RPG. Fusing “metal” units of the same element as a unit provides a significant bonus to the XP they receive, and when you get a unit to its level cap (which varies according to the unit’s rarity) you can “evolve” it into a more powerful incarnation by using materials. You can also use materials to craft useful items and equipment for your units, and one of the game’s currencies to upgrade the village you call home base — this provides you with resources every so often, and also has a bunch of facilities you can unlock over time, providing you access to more and more items and equipment as you upgrade it.

The game makes use of the free-to-play model’s beloved “energy” system, which means you’re only allowed to play a certain amount before you either have to pay up or wait for it to restore. Now, I’m not a huge fan of this system, but so far in Brave Frontier it’s been fairly unobtrusive, with energy consumption pretty much matching up with the average length of a play session. In other words, by the time you’ve run out of energy, you’ll probably want to go and play or do something else anyway. Interestingly, there are a bunch of “dungeons” that you can take on that require significantly more energy to enter than normal quest battles; the rewards for these are significantly greater, however, as is the overall challenge level. This means that you can choose how you spend your energy rather than it being a “flat rate” — do you blow 50 points at once for the chance to get your hands on some rare, useful, powerful goodies, or do you make steady progress through the main story to unlock access to new areas and acquire “gems” which can be used to recruit the more powerful, more rare units?

I don’t know how long I’ll stick with the game, but it’s enjoyable enough at present, and the art style is lovely. If you happen to be playing, feel free to add me as a friend using ID 9630492642.

1914: I Wish I Liked Star Wars More

Recently, there were a couple of big bits of Star Wars-related excitement: the release of a new trailer for the upcoming movie, and some “not gameplay footage” footage of the upcoming new Star Wars Battlefront game.

And… I don’t really care.

This post isn’t, however, a tirade where I get angry at people who are into Star Wars — certainly I don’t begrudge anyone their excitement over the new stuff, and it’s nice to see something people can get enthusiastic rather than angry about for once. No; rather, it’s a contemplation of why I’m no longer into Star Wars now, in 2015, when many of my peers are.

In theory Star Wars should be right up my alley. I like sci-fi and I like fantasy, and Star Wars combines elements of both, being, essentially, a tale of heroic fantasy, mysterious magic and dastardly villains… and a tale that just happens to be set among spacefaring civilisations rather than the more conventional quasi-medieval setting of most fantasy.

And yet I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for it any more.

I don’t think it’s the fault of the films themselves. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are all still solid films, albeit somewhat cheesy at times; The Phantom Menace is a bit poo but inoffensively so, and Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are both perfectly competent, exciting movies. I recall a couple of years back I watched them all through in sequential order — The Phantom Menace first, Return of the Jedi last — and found it to be an enjoyable experience that actually made the prequels seem a bit better than I had previously thought.

I’ve not felt any sort of urge to watch them again, though; I don’t think I even own a copy of them any more, having ditched most of my DVD collection the last time we moved house. I’m kind of done with Star Wars; I got all that I wanted to out of it, and moved on.

Except Star Wars didn’t want to move on, and I think this is why my excitement and interest in it has completely faded over the years. Over the years since the prequel movies, we’ve had TV shows, animated shorts, websites, video games, toys, novels, comics, fan movies, endless speculation, memes, and the Great Unwritten Rule of Geekdom: that if you don’t like Star Wars you’re not a proper nerd. (I don’t actually believe this last one, of course, but I have had a few looks of surprise when fellow nerds have asked me what I think of something Star Wars related and I’ve responded that I’m not really into it.)

In other words, Star Wars was inescapable and being used more as a gigantic marketing juggernaut than anything else. I’ve become very aware of this sort of thing over the last few years — I think working in the press and seeing long-running PR campaigns for various blockbusters “from the inside” jaded me somewhat — and I was just getting a little fed up of seeing it seemingly everywhere. That manifested itself in the realisation that I didn’t really care for Star Wars any more, and a response to the announcement of the new movies and games best described as “meh”.

I’m kind of sad about this in a way, and I do stand by my title for this post; I do wish I liked Star Wars more, because it would be nice to share in some of this excitement, and it’s nice to reminisce about classic games like Super Star Wars, X-Wing and TIE Fighter. But, for me, at least, I think that ship has sailed (or done the Kessel run in however-many-parsecs-it-was, insert your own tortured metaphor here) and I’ve moved on to my own things that people give me blank looks about when I express my own excitement and enthusiasm. It all balances out, I guess.

So for those of you into Star Wars, I hope the recent reveals were everything you hoped they’d be. And for those of you not… well, I’ve got a nice quiet little corner of the Internet here. Pull up a chair and I’ll put the kettle on.

1913: Loser

I blogged before last night’s Slimming World session so I wasn’t able to enthuse about my progress, so I’ll do it now instead.

After a small gain (1lb — I kind of expected it after an extravagant lunch on a training day for some new work I’m starting on) last week, I made up for that with a frankly somewhat surprising loss of 5lb this week.

I won’t lie: I’d been concerned that last week’s gain would herald the beginning of a “plateau” of weight loss, and force me into having to cut back even more on the things that I’m still able to have while losing weight. I’ve already sacrificed some of life’s particularly great pleasures like a lot of takeaways (though, pleasingly, if I eat carefully for the rest of the day I can still get away with my favourite curry, a dhansak), pizza, cake, non-diet fizzy pop and a lot of chocolate (though, again, I can occasionally get away with this if I’m careful) and don’t really want to have to give up anything else; it’s all very well saying that people should “eat healthily”, but if the things you suggest people snack on taste like wood chippings and don’t satisfy cravings at all, then that’s not going to help anyone.

Thankfully, as we’ve seen, that hasn’t happened; I’ve continued doing what I’ve been doing — following the Slimming World programme pretty strictly, except on occasions where it’s impossible to do so due to the food being out of my control — and I’ve made impressive progress this week.

One thing following the programme has done for me is make me think a bit more carefully about what choices I make when presented with a situation like going out for lunch. I had the pleasing opportunity to catch up with some friends I haven’t seen for ages the other day at a local bar/cafe/cantina-type place that we’re all rather fond of. It would have been very easy to simply order the “Hero Burger” from the menu — which is an amazing burger, to be fair, accompanied by skin-on crispy fries — but instead I opted for the jambalaya, which, while still not entirely “healthy” is probably better for me than a burger and chips. (It wasn’t bad, though a little oniony for my taste.)

I’ve also successfully made the transition to diet sodas for the most part; I’ve discovered that while Diet Coke still tastes like piss, Diet Pepsi actually doesn’t, to me, taste particularly different to actual Pepsi. If we’re talking full-sugar goodness, I prefer Coke, but in the diet sector, Pepsi is much nicer. I was also pleased to discover that diet Fanta (and Tesco equivalents) don’t taste any different to their full-sugar counterparts, so that was an easy switch to make, too.

For years, it’s felt like an unattainable dream to imagine myself as being a bit… all right, a lot slimmer. But finally, I feel like it’s something I might be able to achieve. It might — it probably will — take months, maybe even years, but I’m on the right track for once, and it’s nice to feel at least one aspect of my life is proceeding in the right direction.

1912: #WaifuWednesday (special guest: #BoobsNotBlood)

So Wednesday rolls around again, and as we established last week, that means it’s time for Waifu Wednesday.

Before that, a short hefty preamble, though, because it’s being discussed as something of a hot topic on the social media Interwebs at the very time I type this. I refer to the issue summarised under the Twitter hashtag #BoobsNotBlood, in which a number of people have begun pointing out the hypocrisy of popular media in being absolutely fine with graphic violence — the most recent example of which being the new Mortal Kombat game — but immediately shunning anything that has even the slightest hint of being sexual. (Unless, of course, it’s being used for advertising, in which case it’s fucking everywhere, no play on words intended.)

Mortal Kombat, to put things in context for those who are less familiar, is a series that has always prided itself on being graphic. Back on its original release, it was one of the first games to use digitised real actors as its sprites, and one of the first arcade fighting games to feature blood and gore splattering around the screen as the fight continued. Its most notorious feature, though, was the ability to perform a “Fatality” move on a defeated opponent — by entering a convoluted series of button inputs, you could kill your opponent in an assortment of overblown and violent ways, ranging from ripping out their heart to pulling out their spine. The latest Mortal Kombat continues this tradition, even going so far as to provide some of the most obnoxious microtransactions I’ve ever seen — the ability to buy tokens allowing you to perform these Fatality moves more easily without having to learn the button inputs. That’s a whole separate issue, though, that I’m sure we’ll talk about another time.

Anyway. I have absolutely no problem with Mortal Kombat, or indeed pretty much any violent game or piece of media. Violence has become so normalised in modern popular culture that, for the most part, people tend not to bat an eyelid at it any more. (There are exceptions; very realistic gore, torture and any form of depicting realistic violence against women still tends to make people uncomfortable at the very least.) That, in itself, is perhaps a concern for some people, but so long as you’re able to distinguish fantasy from reality — and pretty much everyone is, with the exception of people who already have some pretty severe mental disorders — it’s not a problem as such for your average adult human. (We could get into the whole “think of the children” thing here, but again, that’s probably an issue to tackle another day; I’m primarily concerned with people old enough to make their own decisions here.)

So violence is, for the most part, A-OK in the eyes of popular culture in the West. Sexuality, though, is a big no-no. And this is where the primary resistance to modern Japanese games tends to come from: because the otaku market in Japan — who enjoy fanservice and sexualised content — is a sizeable one with disposable income to throw around, that is the market that many anime and game creators choose to focus their attention on. And with good reason: you go where the money is. It’s the exact same reason we have so many annualised sports games and dudebro shooters here in the West: they sell.

You may not think that otaku games and dudebro shooters have much in common, but there’s one very important aspect in which they’re very much alike: people outside of their core demographic seem to wilfully misunderstand and misinterpret them, and then make a point of talking them down — in the process alienating the people who do like them — at every opportunity. I’ve been guilty of this myself over the years, but since throwing myself more into the things I love to the exclusion of things I didn’t like but explored because I felt I “had” to, I’ve become more content to simply live and let live: I’m never going to play, say, Halo 5 because it just doesn’t appeal, but I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who will enjoy it the experience of playing it.

A key difference, though, is that otaku games are a relatively small market in the West, while dudebro shooters make up the majority of the market. This is the complete inverse of the situation in Japan. The otaku games are seen as a minority, so they’re an easy target; I don’t know if their critics are simply trying to outright get rid of them altogether — I suspect there are at least a few people out there who wouldn’t mind if we never saw a doe-eyed moe girl ever again — and so it’s their controversial aspects — their sexuality — that tends to inflame the ire of critics who, generally, have absolutely no fucking idea what they’re talking about.

And yet, as Mr Matt Sainsbury of Digitally Downloaded said during a Twitter discussion yesterday, sex has been a crucial part of artistic expression since… well, forever. And yet the moment we see a flash of panties, a bit of cleavage, a provocative pose or a bit of dialogue about boob size, that seemingly invalidates the whole experience in the eyes of some critics. It’s painfully inconsistent and hypocritical to completely devalue an experience on the grounds of sexualised content when extreme violence passes without comment. (To clarify: I don’t have a problem with either, and believe that content creators are free to make whatever they like — or what they feel will be popular — without external pressure from people who speak from an ill-informed perspective.)

So with that in mind, let’s take a conspicuously sexy character for this week’s Waifu Wednesday.

KatsuragiThis is Katsuragi from the Senran Kagura series. She’s a member of the Hanzou Academy, a school that trains “good shinobi” — ninjas who supposedly do work for the benefit of all, rather than individual self-interest.

Katsuragi is an interesting character in a number of ways. She’s arguably not the most explicitly sexual of the Senran Kagura girls — that honour probably goes to Haruka, who I’m sure we’ll talk about in the near future — but she is certainly one of those who is most comfortable with her own body, personality and sexuality.

This is an important and interesting point about most of the cast of Senran Kagura, actually; while the series is most widely renowned for its exaggerated jiggling boobs — indeed, the series creator has gone on record as unashamedly saying the reason the series exists at all is because he wanted to see pretty girls with jiggling boobs in 3D on the Nintendo 3DS — the girls aren’t simply well-stacked stick-figures, as sometimes seen in other anime-inspired work. Rather, in most official artwork — and indeed in the game, too — they’re depicted as having healthy curves and, in most cases, being happy with their bodies. (The couple of exceptions to this — Mirai and Ryoubi — have their dissatisfaction with their bodies explored as part of their own personal story arcs.)

1841023-7b5add5ed1389cbf5b843ed6047b6a8dLike most of the cast of Senran Kagura, it was not happy circumstances that drew Katsuragi to the Path of the Shinobi. I shan’t spoil her personal plot here, as it’s explored in more detail than I can give justice to in a few short paragraphs in both Senran Kagura Burst and Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus (and, presumably, the recently released Estival Versus, which is currently only available in Japanese). Suffice to say, though, Katsuragi has a fair amount of personal demons to take on, and a lot of sorrow to deal with.

She has two main means of dealing with these things: firstly, by acting as an “older sister” figure for many of the other group members, who recognise this and refer to her as “Katsu-nee”, “-nee” being a Japanese suffix to denote an older female sibling, but also often used in contexts like this where intimate personal relationships take on a “sister-like” quality. She is a character that her friends in Hanzou look up to and trust greatly, and often confide in.

Her second means of dealing with the emotional baggage she’s been dragging around with her is being a complete pervert, and it’s this aspect of her personality that is more obvious from the start. It’s also this aspect of her personality that cause many people to write her off as little more than a shallow, fanservicey character, but it goes much deeper than that.

Katsuragi’s perversions — particularly her habitual groping of her peers’ breasts — are a form of self-expression for her, and a reflection of the fact she has had to, to a certain degree, bring herself up without some of the normal “boundaries” set for youngsters. She herself refers to her behaviour as sekuhara (sexual harassment) and confesses in Shinovi Versus that she uses it as something of an icebreaker. Her peers don’t always see it the same way, of course — it’s a rather intimate invasion of personal space, after all — but as they — and the player — come to understand Katsuragi, it becomes more and more apparent that this exaggerated behaviour of hers is simply a front for how she’s really feeling inside; she maintains the facade of an energetic, enthusiastic, overly sexual young woman in order to avoid having to burden others with her own emotional turmoil; while others are happy to confide in her, she has some difficulty in being truly honest with them.

Katsuragi develops something of a rivalry with Hikage from Homura’s Crimson Squad. In many ways, Hikage is the polar opposite of Katsuragi, in that while Katsuragi is vibrant and, at first glance, extremely open about her feelings and passions — although as we’ve just talked about, the truth becomes apparent over time — Hikage is dour, emotionless and seemingly unable to enjoy anything. Katsuragi makes it her mission to try and get Hikage to “enjoy” a fight between the two of them, even though they are technically on “opposite” sides of the good/evil divide between shinobi. The two eventually strike up something of a friendship as a result; opposites, as they say, attract.

Katsuragi is an unashamedly sexual character who likes to show off — she explicitly says so when she performs her Ninja Transformation sequence in Shinovi Versus. Where critics tend to habitually misunderstand her — and the Senran Kagura series as a whole — is that this isn’t just there “for the sake of it”. It’s part of who she is, and that should be acknowledged — without shaming it — but, more importantly, it’s not the entirety of her being. She’s a complex, interesting character, and very much one of my favourites in the series, and that’s why I’ve devoted so many words to her today.

Thank you.

1911: Life in Los Santos

I grabbed the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V this week. Grand Theft Auto is one of the few games where I’ll happily suckle on the foul teat of triple-A gaming because, unlike a lot of other recent releases, for the most part the games tend to actually work and live up to their potential rather than just being flashy showcases. (Of course, in Grand Theft Auto V’s case, its online component was completely broken at its console launch, but the single player worked perfectly, at least.)

I picked up the PC version not to play through the single-player game again — I enjoyed it on PS3, but not enough to play it again — but instead to delve into Grand Theft Auto Online, which has been gradually evolving since its barely functional initial incarnation into something rather interesting over the months since its original release.

I’m not yet fully convinced that it quite realises the ambition it clearly has, but it’s certainly interesting to play and fun with friends. I had a bit of a tool around with my friend Tim earlier tonight, and hopefully a couple of our other friends will be joining us in short order.

GTA Online starts with a rather overly long tutorial in which you’re introduced to race events, shooty bang-bang events and missions. After that you’re pretty much flung into the game world and invited to do what you want, whether that’s causing the traditional chaos of a Grand Theft Auto game, taking on other players in competitive challenges ranging from races to team-based shooting events, or simply exploring the world. There’s arguably less incentive to explore in GTA Online as in the single-player, since the online mode lacks single-player’s collectibles, but there’s a certain amount of fun to be had from just trying to get to different places and admire the scenery — because by golly, does the game ever look lovely on PC.

The default way a GTA Online session works is that you log on and are put in a “session” with up to 30 or so other players. Each player is wandering around the game world doing their own thing; they might be stealing cars, holding up stores or causing chaos. The latter option — attacking innocent pedestrians and destroying property — causes your “mental state” meter to rise, indicating that you’re becoming increasingly unhinged and dangerous, and once it reaches a certain level you will be highlighted on the map for other players to hunt down and kill for rewards. You can also just kill other players and attempt to take money they have failed to bank, too, but this also has an impact on your mental state.

The meat of the game comes in the form of “jobs”, which are instanced activities scattered around the map. The majority of these are races (in cars, aircraft, boats and on bicycles) or variations on deathmatch (last man standing, last team standing, team deathmatch, capture the thingy) but there are also missions to take on that are a little more like the activities you’d normally be doing in single player — things like chasing down cars, stealing things without the cops noticing and that sort of thing. Once you advance to a certain rank, you can also take on full-blown Heists with a team of four people, but I haven’t had the opportunity to try those yet.

When you hop into a Job, you have the opportunity to invite people. You can invite friends, crew members, the people who were in your free-roaming session or simply cast a wide net to anyone who might be interested in playing that job. Those people who were invited get a text message sent to their in-game phone and can join the Job wherever they are on the map at the time; once everyone is together and everything is in order — whoever is “hosting” the Job gets control over various settings, including the enjoyable ability to lock the camera angle to the new (and very impressive) first-person mode added for the PC version.

Completing a Job rewards you with money and Reputation Points, or RP. RP allows you to increase in rank, with more activities and purchasable items becoming available as you progress. In this way, the game starts fairly simple and gradually expands over time; “rank” isn’t quite the same as “level” in an MMO in that it has no impact on your character’s abilities — these can all be levelled up independently of one another — but rather it simply increases the amount of available content on offer to those of higher rank.

So far it seems like fun, though when playing with random people I haven’t seen much incentive for people to interact or talk to one another. I’ve seen people get into random firefights with one another, but certainly in free-roam it doesn’t seem ideally set up for “cooperative” play — there doesn’t seem to be a way of making a “party”, for example, though it is possible to create a friends-only session to ensure you only play with people that you like or trust.

I think the issue with GTA Online is that it’s not quite sure what it wants to be. It has some rather MMO-esque ideas — advancing in rank; daily, weekly and monthly challenges; instanced content — but the execution is a little wanting in a few areas. Load times are fairly astronomical, for one thing, and there are a few bugs here and there. Being an online game, though, in theory both of these issues can be fixed in time, so hopefully things will improve.

I don’t wish this to sound negative, though, because so far my few hours in GTA Online have been rather fun. Whether or not I stick with it in the long term remains to be seen, but I’m hoping it will be a game that a number of my friends and I can enjoy together on a semi-regular basis for some time yet.