VA-11 Hall-A: Mixing Drinks and Changing Lives

VA-11 Hall-A is a remarkable work in so many ways. Not only is it the work of just two mysterious chaps from Venezuela, it’s one of the most authentically “Japanese-feeling” Western works for quite some time.

On top of all that, it’s simply an extremely well put together package, featuring beautiful pixel art by Christopher Ortiz strongly reminiscent of vintage Japanese computers such as the PC-88 and PC-98; some snappy, witty writing by Fernando Damas; and a cast of characters so memorable they’ll haunt your dreams long after you serve your last Piano Woman.

The cherry on top of all this is, as we previously discussed when we looked at the game’s early Prologue version, the fact that VA-11 Hall-A’s focus and setting are interesting, compelling and, if not completely unique, then certainly very distinctive.

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Dungeon Travelers 2: Sights and Sounds

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A big draw of Dungeon Travelers 2 is its gorgeous presentation. This shouldn’t be surprising, given its heritage, but it really does have a distinctive look and feel to it.

Its visual aesthetic also proved to be the most controversial aspect of the game, with commentators such as Polygon’s Phil Kollar refusing to take the game seriously due to its appearance. This is particularly sad, as the game has some lovely art, some distinctive character designs and a very strong sense of style to it.

Let’s take a look at the art and sound of Dungeon Travelers 2, then.

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Dungeon Travelers 2: Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

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The dungeon crawler genre isn’t particularly renowned for its storytelling, though this isn’t necessarily a criticism.

The genre grew out of tabletop adventures where the players just wanted to hack and slash their way through some monsters and take their treasure, after all, so it’s understandable that a computerised version of this type of adventure would emphasise mechanics — particularly combat — over narrative.

That doesn’t mean that your average dungeon crawler is completely devoid of plot, however, and in recent years Japanese developers in particular have shown how to strike a good balance between narrative, characterisation and satisfying mechanics. Dungeon Travelers 2 is a prime example.

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Dungeon Travelers 2: Historical Context and Mechanics

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The dungeon crawler subgenre of role-playing games has a long and proud history that stretches right back to the dawn of gaming.

Dungeon Travelers 2 perhaps doesn’t deviate particularly significantly from the more well established conventions of the genre, but it executes them with such polished competence that it becomes clear shortly after starting to play that it is a game that has had a great deal of thought put into its mechanics.

But how did we get to this point? Let’s take a look back at the history of the genre, and how it relates to Dungeon Travelers 2 in particular.

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Dungeon Travelers 2: Introduction

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You’ve probably heard of Vita RPG Dungeon Travelers 2, even if you haven’t played it — but for all the wrong reasons.

You may well recall that around May of 2015, Polygon’s Phil Kollar incited the wrath of Western Japanese game fans by reporting on the impending localisation of Dungeon Travelers 2 with the provocative headline “Atlus can do better than this creepy, porn-lite dungeon crawler”.

Kollar’s impressions of the game were primarily based on the trailer that Atlus released after announcing the localisation of the game, and on the preorder incentives, which included a calendar featuring various illustrations of the game’s characters. The game was not available in English at that point — though it had been out in Japan for a while — but it was pretty apparent Kollar hadn’t played it, nor did he have any intention to.

Which is unfortunate for him, really, because Dungeon Travelers 2 is probably one of the finest dungeon crawlers ever created. Your loss, Kollar.

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Megadimension Neptunia V-II: Sights and Sounds

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One of the most appealing elements of the Neptunia series for fans is its consistent and instantly recognisable aesthetic.

This is largely the work of artist Tsunako. In fact, the Neptunia series at least partly came about as a result of developers Idea Factory and Compile Heart wanting to give her artwork a more prominent role after her previous contributions to games such as Cross Edge and Trinity Universe.

We shouldn’t understate the other aspects of Neptunia’s aesthetic, though; it’s not just about visuals. It’s also about how the games sound, and between the soundtrack, voice acting and even sound effects, it’s clear that the team behind the series has thought about this just as much as the art style.

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Megadimension Neptunia V-II: Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

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While dismissed by many mainstream critics as lightweight, disposable moe fluff, the Neptunia series actually has some of the sharpest, most on-point writing in the business.

Both strongly allegorical and satirical, the series as a whole has evolved its treatment of its narrative themes and characters from installment to installment, roughly in keeping with trends in the gaming business and longstanding concerns in the industry as a whole. Not only that, but it acknowledges and satirises trends in other aspects of popular media, too, particularly anime.

Part of this is down to the snappiness of the original Japanese writing and the characterisation therein — much of which you can pick up through the Japanese voice acting, even if you don’t speak much (or indeed any) Japanese — but a lot of credit must also be laid at the feet of the various localisation teams who have tackled the series over the years.

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Megadimension Neptunia V-II: Historical Context and Mechanics

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The Neptunia series may only have been with us since 2010, but it’s already a mainstay of the modern Japanese gaming landscape.

It wasn’t an entirely smooth ride for the series in the early days, though; in many ways, given the extremely poor critical reception the first game, it’s surprising that we’ve seen as many Neptunia games over the years as we have done.

It’s clearly a series that creator Naoko Mizuno and developer-publishers Idea Factory and Compile Heart believe in, though — and one that fans have resolutely (and sensibly) ignored the mainstream critical opinion of in favour of making their own mind up.

And those who choose to engage with the series over the long term will discover both a franchise and a developer willing to learn from its mistakes, evolve over time and reboot things when necessary.

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Megadimension Neptunia V-II: Introduction

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Since its original appearance in 2010, the Neptunia series has grown from a niche-interest RPG into one of developer Compile Heart’s biggest success stories.

This is a particularly remarkable achievement, given that the first installment in the series didn’t have a strong critical reception at all — while review score aggregation isn’t an exact science by any means, the fact that the first Hyperdimension Neptunia game sits at a not-so-proud score of 45 on Metacritic should make it fairly clear that this is not a game that the mainstream press liked. At all.

And yet here we are, six years later at the time of writing, celebrating the release of the seventh (or fourth, depending on how you want to look at it) installment in the mainline, canonical Neptunia series, and the tenth overall release to carry the Neptunia name in the West.

How did this happen? How did a series that started with a game almost universally panned by professional critics become one of the most recognisable Japanese franchises on the worldwide market?

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Senran Kagura Estival Versus: Sights and Sounds

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The Senran Kagura series has a particularly striking aesthetic that makes it instantly recognisable — and this is the work of not only its visuals, but its soundtrack, too.

Combining the distinctive character designs of artist Nan Yaegashi with a delightfully rockin’ (and varied) soundtrack, Senran Kagura clearly has a keen awareness of the fact that successful series consider their identities carefully. While it clearly isn’t on the same scale in terms of budget as today’s most lavish triple-A titles, what it does do within the constraints of its medium, console hardware, game engine and presentation style is a significant factor in what makes it one of the most fondly regarded Japanese franchises out there.

Senran Kagura Estival Versus is the most impressive installment to date — and while it shines on the lovely screen of the Vita, it’s an absolute delight to behold on a big TV thanks to the PS4 version.

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