Friday, July 28, 2017

REVIEW: Cube Escape: Arles (game)

Cube Escape: Arles is a puzzle solving game in the Cube Escape series. Art buffs in particular might find this entry exciting, since you play as Vincent van Gogh in his bedroom in Arles. You have to collect various objects and use them to solve puzzles in order to try to get out of the room.

One content warning that also counts as a spoiler, sort of: at one point in the game van Gogh must cut off his own ear. There’s no emotion that goes with this - it’s just something he does, and he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about it after the act is completed.

As far as I can tell, the only way this relates to the other games is that Laura had a print of this particular painting in her home in Cube Escape: Case 23. It doesn’t seem to add much to the overall Rusty Lake story, beyond providing another confirmation that mental illness is likely the start of the creation of corrupted souls. I do hope that one of the later Cube Escape games demonstrates that there’s a way to purify (?) corrupted souls, because otherwise this series appears to be making a pretty bleak statement about mental illness.

I turned to a walkthrough for guidance a couple times while playing this, but for the most part this was another game in the series that I was able to play through on my own. Much of the game involved collecting various items and using them in different places in the room, and I don’t recall any puzzles that particularly stood out for me or that I particularly liked. I did enjoy the slightly creepy feeling that the “alternate” room inspired, though, and the painting puzzle was nice.

Overall, this doesn’t really add anything to the larger Rusty Lake story, but it’s a decent puzzle game with an interesting setup. It would probably make for a good first Cube Escape game for those who haven’t tried the series before.

REVIEW: Cube Escape: Harvey's Box (game)

Like all the other Cube Escape games, this one can be downloaded for free. I’d recommend playing some of the other entries in the series before this one - at least Cube Escape: Seasons - because otherwise it’ll probably come across as extremely random.

Anyway, in this game you play as Harvey the parrot. If you’ve played the other games, you know that Laura is going to Rusty Lake Mental Health and Fishing. For some reason she decided that the best way to transport her parrot was to stick him in a box with some of her other belongings. Your job is to complete a few puzzles in order to find a way out of the box.

Although it didn’t add much to the overall Rusty Lake story, this was still a nice little game. The puzzles were just difficult enough to be interesting, but not so difficult that they frustrated me and drove me to check a walkthrough (and I have a pretty low frustration threshold when it comes to puzzle games, anymore). My absolute favorite puzzle was probably the fly and maggot one. It took me a beat to figure out what I was supposed to do, but then going through line by line and thinking through the logic turned out to be extremely satisfying.

I wouldn’t recommend this as anyone’s first Cube Escape game, and it’s not terribly interesting story-wise, but it’s a nice little entry if you just want spend some time solving puzzles.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

REVIEW: Cells at Work! (manga, vol. 1) by Akane Shimizu, translated by Yamato Tanaka

Cells at Work! is an action and comedy manga series with educational elements. It's licensed by Kodansha Comics.

Review:

Cells at Work is a semi-educational series that takes place inside a human body and stars a bunch of anthropomorphized cells. Red Blood Cell is a cheerful delivery girl who takes oxygen to cells (I suppose they’d qualify as the “ordinary folks” of this world) and carbon dioxide back to the lungs. There are lots of potential dangers along the way, so different kinds of White Blood Cells protect everybody. One recurring character, for example, is White Blood Cell (Neutrophil) 1146, who is part of the force that acts as the body’s initial defense against foreign invaders and infectious diseases. He’s depicted as a savagely violent man who is nevertheless polite and maybe even a little friendly towards Red Blood Cell.

In this volume, readers get to see White Blood Cell and others deal with Streptococcus pneumoniae, cedar pollen, Influenza virus, and a scrape wound. This results in the introduction of characters like Helper T Cell, the violent and manly Killer T Cells, hilariously intense and dramatic Memory Cell, Mast Cell, Macrophage, the adorable Platelets, and more.

REVIEW: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World (audiobook) by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, narrated by Abigail Revasch and Tara Sands

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World is a Middle Grade (probably?) superhero book. I picked it up on Audible with one of my remaining credits when I decided to end up subscription.

Review:

I’m going to start this off by saying that I’ve never read any of the Squirrel Girl comics. I wouldn’t even know she existed if it weren’t for people’s reviews on Booklikes. I bought this because the excerpt I listened to sounded good and because I vaguely remembered Squirrel Girl seeming like a fun character when I read those comics reviews.

I should also mention that I took a lengthy break in the middle of listening to this audiobook - not because it was bad, but because I got into one of my “I don’t want to listen to audiobooks” moods. I think I slid back into it and remembered things pretty well, but if I get some details wrong that's probably why.

In this book, Doreen Green is 14 years old and has just moved from California to New Jersey. Going to a new school and making new friends isn’t easy, but Doreen happens to have the most powerful positive attitude on the planet. And also the powers of a squirrel, complete with the tail and teeth. All her life, Doreen’s parents have told her that she has to hide her tail and abilities - after all, they’re so awesome that everyone around her would instantly be jealous and sad that they weren’t like her. But Doreen can’t help herself and accidentally reveals what she can do while dealing with a local group of troublemakers.

Thankfully Doreen’s identity is safe. It seems that her tail has magical attention-diverting powers. While it’s out, she goes by the name she has always secretly called herself: Squirrel Girl. Unfortunately, even though Squirrel Girl isn’t technically a superhero (you can’t just call yourself a superhero, right?), it isn’t long before she finds herself dealing with what appears to be an actual supervillain.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

REVIEW: Mermaid Splash! Passion Festival (game)

Mermaid Splash! Passion Festival (MSPF) is a “pay what you want” f/f visual novel.

CiCi the mermaid has decided that she’s going to finally take part in the Passion Festival. There’s only one problem: although CiCi has many interests, she’s never really focused on one particular hobby. In order to make a good showing at the festival, she’ll need to pick an interest (martial arts, gardening, dance, or painting) and stick to it. Will she be able to hone her skills in time, and maybe even find love along the way?

REVIEW: No Longer Human (manga, vol. 2) by Usamaru Furuya, based on the novel by Osamu Dazai, translated by Allison Markin Powell

I checked this out via interlibrary loan.

This review includes a few spoilers.

Review:

[Content warnings: this volume includes on-page sex, and there’s a deliberately disturbing sequence in which a children’s manga character is given an enormous penis, has sex, and is then killed and left to be eaten by birds.]

This volume picks up where the previous one left off. Yozo has survived his attempted double suicide with Ageha. The idea of being punished for her death gives him the sense of purpose he craves, but this is snatched from his hands by the police’s decision to set him free and deliver him to the hands of one of his family’s former servants. Yozo blames his father and stews in his own bitterness while essentially living trapped in the former servant’s home.

Yozo manages to escape one prison only to end up in another. Having no other place to go, he ends up living with his friend Horiki's editor, Shizuko. She dotes on him, seeing his pretty face and nothing else. Although outwardly things appear to be going well for Yozo - he now has a roof over his head, a job as a children’s manga artist, and somebody willing to fork over money anytime he wants to go out and buy booze - he feels stifled by Shizuko’s love and her young daughter’s wish for him to be her real father.

By the end of the volume, Yozo has finally found something like happiness. Will it last? Ha ha, of course not.

Monday, July 17, 2017

REVIEW: The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku (book) story by Muya Agami and cosMo@BousouP, art by Yuunagi

The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku is a Japanese novel based on a song. It's licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment.

Review:

You have no idea how excited I was to learn that 1) a Vocaloid light novel existed and 2) it was available in English. I ordered a copy for myself a few weeks after finding out about it.

A few years ago I was really into Vocaloid (singing synthesizer software). I wasn’t interested in using it myself, just in listening to other people’s songs and reading about the various Vocaloid and UTAUloid avatars. I gradually found a few Vocaloid/UTAUloid tuners I particularly liked (kyaami is my top favorite) and developed a few Vocaloid/UTAUloid preferences (Kaito was probably my first favorite Vocaloid, and Ritsu continues to be my favorite UTAUloid).

I went into this book with an okay background knowledge of Vocaloid in general and Hatsune Miku in particular. Also, I was familiar with the song the book was based on (here's one version on YouTube), enough to know that the book probably wouldn’t have a happy ending.

The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku stars Shinosato Asano, an ordinary university student who spends his days going to class and doing tedious work at a robotics lab and his nights working as a bartender at a nightclub. He’s shocked when the professor in charge of his research lab singles him out to do a field test of a very special new android named Hatsune Miku. The professor wants a student like Asano, who’s responsible, can keep a secret, and doesn’t know too much about artificial intelligence, to see how well Miku can pass for human out in the real world. He’s not supposed to tell anyone, not even his family members, what Miku really is, and he has to make sure Miku goes back to the professor for regular data collection and weekly maintenance.

Miku’s speech and behavior is a little odd and stilted at first, but it rapidly improves. Asano introduces her to everyone as his very intelligent cousin from England (in order to explain why a 16-year-old girl whose Japanese is still a bit rough is suddenly attending university classes), takes her on a tour of the university, and invites her out to lunch. Lunch becomes their regular activity together, and Asano gradually incorporates activities relating to music once he realizes that Miku particularly enjoys it. He starts to realize, to his dismay, that he might be falling for her. What will happen once the field test is over?

REVIEW: The Naturals (book) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Naturals is YA Criminal Minds with some of the usual “secret school for special teens” mixed in. I read an ARC copy I picked up at a conference several years ago (yes, I'm terrible about reading ARCs, which is why I rarely request them).

When Cassie was 12, she entered her mother’s dressing room only to discover a bloody crime scene, but no body. Her mother's body and murderer (because how could she still be alive after losing that much blood?) were never found. Cassie is now 17 and living with her father’s family. She doesn’t feel like she fits in, but she also doesn’t want to be the focus of her family’s often overbearing love and concern.

Ever since she was little, Cassie has had a knack for noticing little details about people and figuring things out about them using those details. She used to use her ability to help her mother, who worked as a psychic. Since her mother’s death, she hasn’t used her skills for much beyond privately guessing things about customers at the diner where she works, so she’s both intrigued and suspicious when a handsome boy gives her an FBI agent’s business card.

The agent presents her with an offer she can’t resist: she can become part of his “Naturals” program, a team of teens with natural skills that take most adults years of training to learn. Because the program members are all minors, they only get to deal with cold cases, but Cassie still jumps at the chance to do something good and useful with her abilities. However, she and the other program members can’t resist getting more and more involved in a difficult, and possibly personal, active case.

REVIEW: This, My Soul (game)

This, My Soul is a free sci-fi visual novel. The first time I saw it, it was listed as “in development.” I was cautiously excited - it looked slick and the android main character interested me, but there was no guarantee it’d ever be completed. I prefer to play finished products rather than demos.

Thankfully, this is now out of “in development” limbo. I’ve played it through three or four times since downloading it, and my final verdict is...meh. It has some really nice and ambitious aspects, but it doesn’t entirely follow through with all of them, and the android-human romance could have been better.

Backing up a bit, the story: You play as a woman who is the sole survivor of a spaceship accident of some sort. The game allows you to choose the woman’s name - if I remember right, the default is “Kyndle.” Kyndle was rescued by a laborer-class android named Silas, who put her in cryogenic sleep. Because the cryogenic pod is old, Kyndle can’t stay asleep for the entire trip back to civilization, but she also can’t stay awake for the full trip. The plan is for her to be awake at the beginning and then go back to sleep near the end.

In the meantime, Silas helps Kyndle get her strength and full range of movement back, and makes sure she regains some of the weight she lost. At times, Kyndle can’t even move without Silas’s help.

Players have several ways they can approach the game: they can be suspicious of Silas and resistant to the idea of being attracted to an android; they can be friendly towards Silas and more than a little attracted; they can be openly flirtatious; or they can be some combination of all three. There are three possible endings, which the developer/author called the Normal end, Friendship end, and Romance end. However, those aren’t really the best way to describe them.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

REVIEW: Cube Escape: Theatre (game)

In Cube Escape: Theatre, Dale Vandermeer is back and exploring more of his memories while in the endless elevator. This time he travels to 1971 and an event surreal enough that it (maybe) never happened. Dale finds himself at a theater with a bartender and a depressed man who wants to get drunk enough to drown out the past. Unfortunately for him, in the Cube Escape games “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

This game had lots of crossover with other Cube Escape/Rusty Lake games, especially Rusty Lake Hotel (Ms. Pheasant makes an appearance in human form!), Cube Escape: The Lake, Cube Escape: Seasons, and Cube Escape: Case 23. Part of me thinks it would be best to play this after playing all those other games, and part of me thinks that playing this one first might add a bit more weight to the other games. Cube Escape: The Lake now seems a bit less random to me, for instance.

This was one of the few games in this series that I had the patience to go through without a walkthrough. Well, almost: I broke down and consulted one after spending several fruitless minutes searching for a cube that turned out not to exist. I really enjoyed the various stage puzzles, even though it took me longer to catch on to what was going on with some of them than it probably should have. I wasn’t a huge fan of the “hunt for cubes inside the man’s head” bit (gross), but the part with him in the bathroom at the end was wonderfully creepy.

All in all, this was an excellent entry in the series, both from a puzzle-solving perspective and from a story perspective.

REVIEW: No Longer Human (manga, vol. 1) by Usamaru Furuya, based on the novel by Osamu Dazai

I checked this out via interlibrary loan. Warning: this review includes spoilers.

This is technically the first volume of a manga adaptation of Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human. However, in reality it’s more like a work inspired by Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human. It has a lot of the same characters and a lot of the same events, but also enough important changes that the impact of certain familiar scenes and characters is completely different. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

The volume begins with Usamaru Furuya as a character in his own manga. He’s trying, and failing, to think up an idea for his next serial when he suddenly gets an anonymous email pointing him to an online “ouch diary.” The website contains three images: one of 6-year-old Yozo posing with his family while wearing a wide fake smile; one of Yozo at age 25, his expression lifeless and worn down; and one of Yozo at age 17, cool and handsome. Furuya proceeds to read the diary that goes with those images, to learn how Yozo fell so far so quickly.

Then readers get the story of Yozo’s life, starting with a few pages showing him as a child and middle school student, behaving like a class clown in order to get people to like him. The story quickly progresses into Yozo’s high school years, when he is befriended by Horiki, who Yozo believes is truly what he has spent his life pretending to be, a friendly and shiftless clown. Although Yozo starts off with everything in life handed to him on a silver platter, things rapidly fall apart, and the volume ends with Yozo’s first suicide attempt (I’m assuming the manga will include the next one).

Thursday, July 6, 2017

REVIEW: The Edge of the Abyss (book) by Emily Skrutskie

The Edge of the Abyss is YA f/f science fiction.

Review:

This review will include spoilers for the first book. You’ve been warned.

At the end of The Abyss Surrounds Us, Cas decided to stay with the Minnow and her crew. I wish I had written down her reason for doing so, since one of my problems with The Edge of the Abyss was that I couldn’t remember why she’d have wanted to stay when staying seemed to cause her nothing but grief.

At any rate, she stayed - I think because she wanted to get more evidence on the guy who was trading Reckoner pups to the pirates, and because she loved Swift so much? Except the latter reason turned out to be less than wonderful, because right after deciding to stay with the Minnow, Cas learned that Swift had personally been responsible for Durga’s death.

So that’s Cas’s emotional state for much of The Edge of the Abyss: upset at Swift for what she did, upset at herself for essentially turning traitor and staying with pirates, and perversely drawn to Santa Elena and whatever scraps of praise she was willing to give out. Bao is somewhere out in the ocean, and Cas mistakenly thinks he’s the only free Reckoner. He very much is not - the crew of the Minnow discover others, which they nickname Hellbeasts. Every last one of them was a Reckoner pup illegally obtained and improperly raised by pirates, and they’re complete destroying the ocean ecosystem. If life in the ocean is to be saved, the pirates, all of them, will somehow have to band together, admit their mistakes, and defeat the Hellbeasts.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

REVIEW: Cube Escape: Seasons (game)

In Cube Escape: Seasons, you explore your memories of four different time periods: Spring 1964, Summer 1971, Fall 1971, and Winter 1981. Spring 1964 is a good time. There are indications that things aren’t quite perfect (you’re on Prozac and have a note about something called Rusty Lake Mental Health & Fishing on your bulletin board), but life is decent. Things take a turn for the worse in Summer 1971, and everything is well and truly bad by Fall 1971. It appears that you may be a murderer. But wait! You may be able to go back in time and stop your terrible actions from happening!

I wasn’t fond of this game, at first. It seemed to be using mental illness as ham-handed shorthand for “disturbed future killer,” and I didn’t have much sympathy for the protagonist, who didn’t seem inclined to do much to prevent their actions until after they’d already done something terrible and (in a normal world) irrevocable.

I liked the game a lot more once the time travel aspect became a thing. I’m still a bit confused about what, exactly, happened, but I loved how the phrases from the weird person (?) over the phone became more than just random strange messages. “Everything you touch you change” indeed. Warning: my review includes spoilers from here on out.

REVIEW: Cube Escape: The Mill (game)

Cube Escape: The Mill starts with you apparently alone at the Rusty Lake Mill. You will eventually discover that 1) there is another person in the mill and 2) that there is a task you need to complete that requires the mill to be operational.

This game directly ties in with Cube Escape: Case 23, which I later wished I had played prior to Cube Escape: The Mill. Some parts of Cube Escape: The Mill might have made slightly more sense, if I had. Oh well.

I wasn’t really a fan of this entry, although I liked that it added a bit more to the overall Rusty Lake story and the mystery of Mr. Crow. The puzzle involving the old woman’s teeth was bizarre (also, wow is that woman a knitting machine), and I loathed the memory puzzle. I ended up frantically scribbling notes to myself during the few seconds where the game allowed you to see the cards.

FYI: I just remembered, this is another game in the series that includes a few animal deaths. And people deaths, although apparently the blonde lady was definitely dead (I guess?) when she arrived at the mill.

REVIEW: Cube Escape: Birthday (game)

Cube Escape: Birthday appears to be a direct sequel to Rusty Lake Hotel: it starts with the endless elevator scene that Rusty Lake Hotel ended with. You play as Dale Vandermeer (any relation to the Vanderbooms, I wonder?), who is transported back to his memory of his 9th birthday. Dale’s birthday includes several ominous moments and ends in a massacre. However, if Dale can figure out just the right things to do, he can change his past and prevent the tragedy.

This one was more violent than I expected, although I appreciated that the developer didn’t kill the cat. Actually, for the most part this developer tends to go out of its way to not harm animals in its games. I can only think of two, at the moment, where animals were harmed: Rusty lake Hotel and Cube Escape: Seasons.

This entry in the series was a bit weird (they all are, I guess) - I’m still not sure whether Dale actually changed the past, or just his memories of the past. The puzzles were pretty good and, for the most part, made sense to me. The only one that I hated was the poster puzzle. Even after I figure out what I was supposed to do, I hated having to do it - it’s not really difficult, but you do need to be able to think fast and have halfway decent reflexes.

The story was excellent, almost as interesting an entry in the series as Rusty Lake: Roots. I loved the “travel back to the past to fix the past” aspect, which seems to be a recurring theme in this series. Oh, and the code from Rusty Lake Hotel reveals a little scene that provides a bit more information on one character (who I hadn’t even realized was a recurring character).
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