Handheld Tear-Jerkers

by Arthur B

Some Nintendo DS games written to make you all misty-eyed.
In some respects, the Nintendo 3DS couldn't have come sooner; lately I've been finding the DS shelves at my preferred game shops increasingly clogged up with an enormous tidal wave of shovelware. A while back, before Game decided to have a purge, the PC games section was dominated by various varieties of hidden object game (potentially a side-effect of most canny developers giving up on the idea of selling boxed PC games in shops in the first place); at points it's seemed that the DS selection has been getting that bad. If the 3DS is substantially more expensive to develop for then hopefully that will mean the market isn't swamped to the point where shovelware crowds high-quality games off the shelves.

The crappy selection of games currently out for the DS is particularly unfortunate, because I think the best console games often come out comparatively late in a console's life cycle. Once you hit a point where developers are both comfortable enough with the system in question to really be able to put it through its paces, and the prospect of an upcoming new generation of consoles make them want to push the constraints of the old hardware in order to compete with the flashier offerings on the horizon, sometimes wonderful things can happen. The first Silent Hill game is one of the most visually arresting games on the PS1 and came out barely a year before the PS2 arrived; the PS3 had been out for years when Persona 4 came out on the PS2 and amazed me with how good the graphics on the old system could still be.

So I was quite glad when a while back I was able to score the latest sequels to some of my favourite series on the DS, and found that in both cases they pushed the graphical capabilities of the system to the limit. On top of that, I don't know why it is but for some reason both of them seemed to take a more pessimistic, downbeat stance than is usually typical for downbeat games, which got me thinking about downer gaming in general. Writing games that make people feel sad or bad about the things that happen on them is kind of a tightrope; for every Spec Ops: The Line that comes out there's a dozen indie attempts at Challenging Your Preconceptions which fall flat like The Path or Dear Esther, and two or three major league developers revealing the extent to which their artistic pretensions overreach their craft, as happened with Mass Effect 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV. And yet here are two games in series which had previously proven quite cheerful which had me genuinely engaged and mooping away at the moop-worthy things that happen in them, and they make the whole thing look easy. What gives?

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

With high-quality conversions of the fourth, fifth and sixth Dragon Quest games (two of which I've reviewed here and here) gracing the Nintendo DS, as well as platform-specific oddities like Rocket Slime, the DS has become something of a second home for Dragon Quest. Even so, it's kind of a big deal that the latest numbered installment of the series is a DS-exclusive; not only does it represent a full return to the loving embrace of Nintendo (Dragon Quest VII and VIII were PlayStation 1 and 2 titles respectively), but it's also the first time a game in the main series (rather than a spinoff game) has been developed primarily for a handheld platform, as opposed to being converted later on.

This isn't the only departure from Sentinels of the Starry Skies offers, though. For a game in a series known for sticking fairly firmly to tried-and-tested JRPG norms, Dragon Quest IX is practically revolutionary. First off, you can actually customise the look (and gender) of your player character, with a neat little system which gives you plenty of choices whilst still sticking true to DQ house artist Akira Toriyama's distinctive aesthetic. This might be a small thing - and certainly, the effects seem to be purely cosmetic aside from a few gendered items of equipment in the game (heartbreakingly, women can't wear boxer shorts in this universe) - but it's just the first of a range of new features (some inspired by the DS conversions of IV to VI, some novel to IX) which seem intended to radically expand the possibilities of the JRPG format without deviating from the basic formula.

For instance, there's actually multiplayer functionality this time around - you can go and visit other people's games, join their parties, and help them advance in their adventures, earning experience for yourself whilst helping your buddy advance. On top of that, there's actual DLC quests and goodies you can get, including some which advance the game's plotline beyond the end of the main story. If you don't want to be dealing with no Internet nonsense or other human beings, there's no problem - once you hit a certain point early on in the game you can craft a posse of NPCs to accompany you in your adventures, and there's plenty of side quests (and a range of entirely optional dungeons which are accessed via treasure maps) to give you stuff to do if you're stuck on the main quest. This is particularly helpful if you hit a point where you need to do some levelling before you continue on the main quest: to put it simply, there's absolutely no need to ever do directionless grinding in this game, because there's always some optional dungeon to explore or a side quest you can do or a bit of exploration you can attempt in order to give some sort of context and goal to your meanderings, which for my part feels much better than just seeking out some monsters and aimlessly hitting them time after time. Speaking of monsters, except for oceanic journeys random encounters are done away with entirely - instead, monsters appear in the wilderness or dungeon you are currently exploring and you can engage them or attempt to evade them as you choose - another departure from classic JRPG precedent which improves the game substantially.

None of these embellishments to the formula change the tried-and-tested core gameplay experience, and the team also seem to have done a good job on the writing (though of course I'm reading it through the lens of the typically pun-tacular English localisation). The basic idea is that your main character is a Celestrian, part of a race of atomic supermen angel-like entities who live in a flying Observatory in the sky and watch over humanity, invisibly doing good deeds and helping them out in times of need. The gratitude shown by humanity for the good fortune the Celestrians bring them takes on tangible form and is used by the Celestrians to feed Yggdrasil, the world ash; the prophecy followed by the Celestrian holds that once they have fed Yggdrasil to the point where it produces the fabulous fruit known as Fyggs, a magic flying space train called the Starflight Express will appear to convey them to the Realm of the Almighty, where they will dwell at leisure with God forever.

The Celestrian conception of their place in the universe, and of what is going on down in the world, is shattered when the player character, having been given responsibility for a charming little village, happens to collect the last few drops of gratitude required to bring forth the Fyggs. All of a sudden, a deadly laser blast is fired from the ground, rocking the Observatory, shooting down the Starflight Express, killing God, and causing the player and Fyggs alike to fall to Earth. Losing their wings and becoming visible as a result of the trauma of the fall, the player character has to find the Starflight Express, get it running again, track down the Fyggs (which have a disturbing tendency to make people's wishes come true in twisted ways when mortals snack on them), get to the Realm of the Almighty, find out the truth behind the Celestrian project, take down the Gittish Empire which is behind these theocidal shenanigans, and do yet more besides to set the world to rights.

Ultimately, the bulk of the main plot involves you going around the map, encountering various little communities with their own little cultures, and doing good deeds for them which happen to advance your agenda as a side-effect. This is more or less consistent with the usual Dragon Quest model. What really sets the game apart this time around is the fact that often the outcomes of the various situations you embroil yourself in are heart-rendingly sad. Not all the time, of course - occasionally things come out fine! - but very often there's a limit to how much you can actually help at all. Often you'll encounter people who are either already bereaved or become bereaved in the course of the story, and with the Celestrian power to see and converse with spirits you get to hear people's grief from both sides of the tracks; a lot of the time there's nothing you can do beyond getting the living out of danger and helping them move past the deaths of their loved ones.

There's an archaeologist who's so intent on removing the plague curse from his home town that he is oblivious to the fact that his own wife is showing the symptoms of the disease - which, in fact, she deliberately conceals from him so he won't be distracted caring for her from the important work of saving the town. There's a dead fisherman who through the power of a Fygg creates/possesses a sea monster to provide fish for his home village when summoned by his daughter - resulting in the daughter being treated like a public utility by the fishing village, whose fishermen completely neglect their craft because it's easier to get the girl to summon FishDad instead. There's the ghost of a man who, in tribute to his childhood sweetheart back home, created a life-size sculpture replica of his home town at the top of a lonely mountain; when you visit the woman in question, it turns out she barely remembers him, having married and lived a full life in the meantime. There's a girl who turns out to be a doll given life by the power of a Fygg given to her by her former owner, who was dying of a terminal illness and decided to use the Fygg to give her favourite toy (which happens to be a dead-on replica of her) life instead of saving herself. (At the end of that particular plot the doll, at the behest of the dead girl's ghost, wanders off to divest herself of the Fygg; you find her propped up against the dead girl's grave, a lifeless doll again.)

For a game in which you play an angel, the lack of easy, miraculous solutions to the little tragedies you run into across the course of the game is notable, and pretty much has to be deliberate. (The doll one in particular caused me difficulty. I was left for most of the game wondering whether I'd screwed up somehow.) It's almost certainly some variety of deliberate statement. At the end of the main plot, God is dead, the fallen angel has repented and shuffled off the stage, you've become mortal and are left behind as the last guardian of the mortal world as the angelic host retires to heaven along with God's daughter to fix the place up. And in the end credits, all these mortals you've been helping out over the course of the game are making the best of the situation; the archeologist and his father-in-law have reconciled, the fishing village have rediscovered their work ethic, the doll, still lifeless, is at least being played with by the town's children, the sculpture of the town is being visited by the woman it was made in honour of. None of these resolutions are really optimal, but they're the best people can manage and better than you might have expected. Tears? What tears? No, I've just got something in my eye...

Last Window: the Secret of Cape West

When I reviewed Hotel Dusk, the previous game in Cinq's series of visual novels/adventure games revolving around door-to-door salesman and secret private eye Kyle Hyde, I referred to its style as "film blanc" - in that the game occasionally seemed to be going for a comparatively hardboiled style, with the detective protagonist prodding about in people's murky pasts, but rather than resulting in angst and bloodshed and crying Kyle's investigation usually resulted in people reaching an epiphany and turning their lives around, leading to an ultimately upbeat and cheerful ending. Well, Last Window is a bit more murky than that and features a little more actual peril than Hotel Dusk did, and whilst it does still regularly turn into detective-as-therapist, only some of the characters still have a chance to turn their lives around - for the rest, the best you can do is either help them come to terms with the grotesqueness of their situation or give them the resolution necessary to make a run for it and perhaps stay one step ahead of the grim fate awaiting them. Call it "film gris", then.

The basic premise: once again, it's coming up to Christmas - specifically, Christmas 1980, a year after the events of Hotel Dusk. Kyle's been struggling to stay motivated in his job at Red Crown - a detective agency specialising in tracking down lost valuables and disguised as cleaning supply manufacturers - and after dozing off on the job, he's abruptly fired. Slouching home to Los Angeles and his apartment in the Cape West building - formerly a majestic hotel, until it closed down thirteen years ago - Kyle is disturbed to discover that his landlady, Margaret Patrice, has sold up and that everyone is being evicted so that the building can be demolished. Before he can set his mind to finding new digs, however, Kyle discovers a note slipped into his door - a request for his services as a Red Crown operative to track down a mysterious object known as the Scarlet Star which can supposedly be found somewhere in the building. The job stinks to high heaven - not least because clients aren't meant to have direct contact with Red Crown investigators - but as Kyle begins to prod at the building's secrets, he finds himself compelled to follow it up.

What first seems to be a simple set of problems - get his job back, track down the Scarlet Star, and perhaps find out why the building is being sold up - seems to have ramifications which spiral out further and further. A recent spate of jewel thefts, the political career of the frontrunner in the city's mayoral election, the machinations of the nationwide crime syndicate Nile whose trail Kyle stumbled across in Hotel Dusk, and a string of murders and apparently "accidental" deaths from the past - including the slaying of Kyle's own father - all seem to be part of the web of secrets that Kyle uncovers in his own apartment building.

As an adventure game in the visual novel mode, obviously the writing in Last Window is crucial, and if anything the game not only holds to the standards of Hotel Dusk but actually improves on them. With his job on the line, no idea where he'll be living come the end of the month, and reminders of the death of his father cropping up in his investigation, Kyle seems to be in a somewhat more vulnerable mood than in Hotel Dusk, and the script does a good job of convincing you to become as invested in Kyle's midnight soul-searching as it does in his investigations. Through his interactions with his neighbours, his employers, an old friend from Hotel Dusk and his mother, the writers go all-out to establish Kyle as a real person with a real network of acquaintances and a believable routine and habits. They also leverage Kyle's introspective mood to help out with the pacing, using Kyle's moments of contemplation to break things up in a somewhat more natural way than the more abrupt chapter endings of the first game. As a whole, in fact, they have this really laser-accurate hold on pacing - for instance, on Christmas Eve you only advance your investigations to a fairly limited extent and spend most of your time catching up with an old friend from the previous game and spending the evening with some of your NPC buddies.

The range of NPCs you interact with are also interesting; every single one has a distinct voice, a developed personality, and a believable and interesting backstory, even though some of them are deeply embroiled in the mysteries you are investigating and some of them have more or less nothing to do with them. As well as giving Kyle a network of acquaintances and a set of people in his life which seems believable, Cing do an excellent job of making Cape West a living location with a set of people with pre-existing interactions who all fit into the microcosmic society of the apartment building in a different way. As well as just being more satisfying to interact with, this also helps set Cape West aside from Hotel Dusk, because whilst the one is a place where people live and put down roots Hotel Dusk is a place where people come and go and nobody has substantial roots there except the staff and a very few perennial guests.

Mere months after putting the game out, Cing went bust, and I don't know how much the designers knew about that situation when writing the game but I could definitely believe that they had some awareness that all was not well. Like I said, whilst you can make a real difference in the lives of most of the NPCs you encounter, there's a substantial subset of those cases where the difference you make isn't actually enough to save them from the dilemma they've found themselves in. The Nile organisation is much more present and proactive in this game in the previous one, and whilst some of their agents do get flushed out, ultimately the organisation is still standing at the end and a lot of the people who were in its gunsights have to up stakes and go on the run to survive. In other cases, the most you can do for someone is convince them that you are a good and appropriate person for them to confess the terrible wrongs of their past to. The Cape West building isn't saved, the community of people living in there go off to the four winds, the gemstone proves to be no real use to anyone other than a museum and Kyle comes away with nothing except a few firm friendships and a bit of closure over the death of his dad.

It's not a full-on downer ending, but it's a murky one; whilst this is ultimately a detective story instead of a slice-of-life piece, you do get the impression that there's a whole lot of stuff that comes after the ending (and after the epilogue in the in-game novel, of which more later) outside of the scope of the current story which is still unresolved. It's not that the game lacks closure, so much as it concedes that whilst a detective mystery can have closure, people's lives really don't. In this case I think the reason it works is that, firstly, hardboiled detective fiction usually has the protagonist pushing things through to a depressing ending in which everything goes to shit for a variety of people; the conclusion of Last Window is nowhere near that devastating, but is close enough to that "I'll get the truth out of you, and damn the consequences" territory that its more sombre aspects aren't so out of left field. Equally, the game does an excellent job of managing the player's expectations of what you can actually achieve with this investigation, and by and large you are able to accomplish most of what you could reasonably have hoped to without being able to help situations which are clearly beyond your power. None of the murder victims are ever coming back, for instance, and it'd be ludicrous to expect the closure Kyle has with respect to his father's death to take the sting out of the event entirely; equally, the closure and demolition of Cape West is presented from the beginning of the game as a fait accompli and there's never any suggestion that the building's doom can be averted.

In terms of the gameplay, Cing scale back on the puzzles a fair bit compared to Hotel Dusk. At points, in fact, it feels a little like they have run out of ideas for puzzles - I noted at least one whose solution is literally identical to the solution of a puzzle from Hotel Dusk - but I think it's more the case that to a certain extent they've lost interest in them. Adventure game-style accumulation of random objects for the sake of it is excised - Kyle by and large will only pick something up if he's realised there's something he can do with it - and whilst puzzles become a bit more prominent in the later stages of the game, the designers go for presenting a few big puzzles as opposed to lots of small ones. The conversation system, already a major element of Hotel Dusk, is absolutely dominant in Last Window, to the point where it seems that you're more likely to get a game over by saying the wrong thing in conversation or making the wrong accusation than you are by getting a puzzle solution wrong. (As far as game overs go, the game is actually fairly forgiving, allowing you to replay as close to the point where you went off-course as it can reasonably place you - so if, as at some points in the later game, you realise you're being restarted at a point unusually far back, that's a fairly clear sign that the wrong decision you made was further back than you thought.)

Where the game goes beyond the call of duty is in providing you with ways of reminding yourself of what's gone down in previous chapters - as you play through the game you actually unlock chapters of a little e-book which summarises more or less everything which happens, as well as providing hint packages. (If you get through the game without using the hint packages offered you unlock an epilogue which gives you a few more details on what happens after the end). Between that, the ability to take in-game notes, and the plot recaps that round off the end of each chapters, the game does a good job of helping you keep a grasp of the somewhat complex plot - crucial in a game designed for a handheld platform which you can pick up and put down at your convenience.

Other than that, in presentation and in the actual process of playing the game the game is more or less identical to Hotel Dusk, with perhaps a somewhat spruced-up graphical presentation. As far as swansongs for developers go, Last Window more or less sums up what Cing were all about - great writing, gorgeous art, gameplay competent but a bit of an afterthought.

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Comments (go to latest)
http://vonnemattheus.livejournal.com/ at 17:43 on 2012-07-15
Hmm... I've had DQ9 over a year now and couldn't bother getting past the second dungeon, but if you say so it's worth a shot.

Window was alright and I'm guessing the reason that Cing went bankrupt is that their games are very low-key and subtle. The most violent thing that happened in Dusk was when someone knocked you out with a brick. All the action in those games happened before they start, so it's more about picking up the pieces.

Speaking of Tear-Jerkers, have you ever heard of Mother 3? Since it was never released outside of Japan you have to play it using... certain means. It manages to be heartbreaking yet funny and always fun to play.
Arthur B at 20:44 on 2012-07-15
I've heard of it but I thought I'd give Earthbound and the first Mother a try before getting to it.

I forget - does anyone actually pull a gun on Kyle in Hotel Dusk?
http://vonnemattheus.livejournal.com/ at 21:22 on 2012-07-15
Kyle gets a gun pulled on him in the second game by that plumber guy, though he handles a gun in the first.

The original MOTHER isn't well known compared to the sequels, mainly because the gameplay is a clone of the original Dragon Quest but with with even more grinding.
Arthur B at 23:43 on 2012-07-15
I think there's actually two people who pull guns on Kyle in Last Window...

I'll take your recommendation re: Mother onboard. :)
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2012-08-30
Damn, the premise for Dragon Quest IX sounds awesome. Furthermore, it sounds like both of these games strike an interesting tone which is pretty rare in genre fiction, and especially RPGs. Unfortunately, I highly doubt I'll ever play either of them.

here's plenty of side quests (and a range of entirely optional dungeons which are accessed via treasure naps)

"Treasure naps" is a lovely construction, almost lyrical; but I imagine they must be hella uncomfortable, unless maybe you're a dragon. I suppose going to sleep on a big pile of gold is a pretty unique method of accessing optional dungeons, though.
Arthur B at 15:20 on 2012-08-30
Locating stashes via treasure naps would be a pun worthy of Dragon Quest.

Unfortunately, it isn't accurate so I've corrected. ;)
http://jmkmagnum.blogspot.com/ at 02:39 on 2013-02-25
After losing interest in DQIX after the first couple dungeons, I picked it back up long enough to get your party members and I've been playing it since. I've fallen into my usual habit of gaming, where I play an RPG for a while without using a guide or anything, but eventually I get so worried that I'll miss a MISSABLE FOREVER item that I start checking wikis, and before I know it I'm playing the whole game with three wiki tabs open.

ANYWAY, the actual point of my comment is... Holy crap, that town where the doll facsimile lived out the deceased girl's life? Seemed way, way more morbid and creepy than any of the other downbeat scenarios you had to deal with before. Especially since I'm not 100% clear on what the eventual resolution was--my impression is that while the doll is back to being lifeless, the townspeople have the impression that the girl herself is just off away somewhere, and not dead, and holy wow.

One thing I really like about the gameplay is the skill system, where you're encouraged to start over in other classes but you keep a few of the benefits you accrued in your time as one class to start with. Pretty satisfying.
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