Vita Island Game Club: An End-of-the-Year Retrospective

Header image for the Vita Island Game Club december pick, which features a player's choice game.
Source: @VitaGameClub

In early 2020, @GideonOnGaming had the great idea to start a virtual game club. The concept is similar to a book club, but instead of reading books we all play a chosen game and discuss it online at the end of each month. Naturally, I was thrilled to sign up! Anything where video games are treated as the literature they are is going to be right up my alley. Gideon has said that, "The general idea was a way for us to try to fit more Vita games into our catalogue. A way to encourage ourselves and others to play the Vita games we may have missed." Personally, the club has been a way for me to keep playing my Vita even after most gamers have moved on to other consoles.


Because we are all diehard fans of the Playstation Vita, we decided to focus our club on games that can be played on the Vita. This doesn't mean that you have to actually play said game ON your Playstation Vita, however -- if you own the game on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Steam, or any other platform, it is perfectly acceptable to play on your platform of choice. The Vita Island Game Club doesn't judge! 


The concept of "Vita Island" was first discussed on the podcast PS I Love You XOXO, and has come to represent Vita players who feel stranded on a desert island by lack of support for the console from Sony, as well as lack of a large player community (though the community that does exist is quite dedicated!). 


In February 2020, we played our first game: Claire. Over the months we played a great variety of games, all short enough that they can be comfortably finished within the month. The games we played in 2021 are as follows:


January: Rayman Origins
February: Odin Sphere
March: Papers, Please
April: Superbeat: Xonic
May: Ys I
June: Drive Girls
July: Fighting Climax
August: Russian Subway Dogs
September: Mary Skelter Nightmares
October: Dead Nation
November: Uncharted: Golden Abyss
December: Player's Choice (Catch up on a game you didn't finish.)


For this end of the year retrospective, I asked members of the Vita Island Game Club to talk about their experience, especially with a favorite game we played this year. Below are the responses I received.


Source: @VitaGameClub

From @GideonOnGaming:

The appeal of the Vita Island Game Club is it encourages me to try games I otherwise wouldn’t have or encourages me to play a game I haven’t been able to fit it into my gaming regimen. One such game is Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax. I’ve played Street Fighter x Tekken and DOA5 on the Vita but had not played any of the 2D fighters. While I enjoy fighting games, I tend to stick to the 3D ones because the 2D fighting games seem to cater more to the “serious” fighting game community, which I am not part of.

I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible Fighting Climax was. I only ended up playing through the arcade mode a couple of times. I didn’t get proficient at the fighting but I was able to cheese my way through battles easily enough. It seemed like one of those games that if you fought against someone who knew what they were doing you wouldn’t be able to land many hits.

I was unfamiliar with a vast majority of the characters on the roster which is an ensemble cast of existing characters from multiple properties. Learning about these characters lead me to some unfamiliar anime like Shakugan no Shana and The Devil Is a Part-Timer. This was an unintended benefit of the game. 

I was able to play an online match with another member of the Vita Island Game Club. While the connection wasn’t great, it was a fun experience. Aside from the couple of matches with the VIGC member I was unable to find a match, which is not at all surprising. A benefit of the VIGC is a willing group of people who are currently playing the same game as you.

While I probably won’t put any significant time into Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax in the future, I look forward to the next time the VIGV chooses a fighting game to play.


Source: @VitaGameClub

From @Dustman_B:

When it comes to the Vita Island game club there are two things that stand out to me.

 1. It's a great community with some wonderful people I'm very happy to have met.
 2. It really makes me play games I've overlooked or hesitated playing in the past.

I had previously played a few of the games that we played this year, and while they were still fun to go back to, the game that really made me shake my head asking myself why I didn't play it sooner is Uncharted Golden Abyss.

Yes that Uncharted. A game widely regarded as a system seller and known as one of the best games on the Vita, that I've owned since 2012. I put it off, because I generally really have a distaste for touch control. I heard Uncharted was full of them and that they were really distracting and off putting. A gimmick for the sake of having gimmicks that show off the Vita.

Some of that was true. They were obviously put in to show off the Vita's capabilities, but surprisingly I didn't mind most of them. Uncharted on Vita is a fantastic game through and through. A great story, fantastic voice work, and just fun to play. Some of the touch controls feel good and while some do feel a bit wonky, it doesn't really detract from the overall experience.  Without VIGC this game would probably still be collecting dust on the back of my shelf, and that's just really sad.

Source: @VitaGameClub

From @Schyzo99:

Papers, Please! Papers, Please!

This sounds like an injunction, an injunction to comply. It also clearly states who is in control, and let me tell you, you're not in control! But guess what? The one in control may not be who you think it is!

Papers, Please is an award winning game developed by Lucas Pope where you take the role of an immigration officer, checking the required official documents and deciding on the fate of the immigrants requesting passage.

It starts as an ordinary game where you try to do your best and just comply with the rules, allowing people in or just refusing entry whenever they don't have the right ever-changing documents. Nonetheless, the life of an immigration control officer is not that easy in the country of Arstotzka. Life is tough for everyone: immigrants and yourself. You will rapidly understand your role may not only be to be a diligent gate keeper acting like a robot. Your feelings, your awareness of your surroundings and the political climate will soon bring you to answer an unsolvable dilemma… 

Beyond the amazing gameplay mimicking the actual mess on your desk as well as the challenge to keep up with the new regulations published on a daily basis, you will soon have to find your own balance and goals and decide how your own personality and values contribute to your story. Each decision will guide your life, as well as your family depending on you to provide food and shelter. Making money by taking bribes, putting in jail innocent people, being the instrument of the party or helping terrorists are some of the decisions you will be making by accepting or refusing entry. 

Which of your family, your country or your values will you follow? What kind of person are you? Will you even stay alive? If you want to find out, please play this absolute masterpiece which is Papers, Please! I rarely played a game which has an amazing gameplay but also so many things to say.  

Papers, please is one of the games that moved me. I felt like beyond just having fun playing the game, it was telling me something, trying to make me think about difficult situations that occur in our real world. Not telling me what to think but smartly questioning my own preconceptions. In this sense, Papers, please is more than a game but a piece of art.

PS: if you wish to get a feel of the atmosphere, you should also check out Papers, Please! The short movie.

 

Source: @VitaGameClub

@vitagamergeorge had to get something off their chest with a bit of a different perspective on one of the games we played:

As many people on Twitter, I spend a not insignificant portion of my time becoming outraged at things people say on the virtual message board. Infamously, we are meant to let people enjoy things. But I can't. I can't let it stand that people promote Drive Girls as a viable part of the Vita library when there are so many better options. Do you like driving? Try Sonic All Stars Racing Transformed, Horizon Chase Turbo or Need For Speed: Most Wanted. You like mech fighters? How about Shin Gundam Musou, Super Robot Wars X or Muv Luv Alternative. Or let's be honest you just like cute big tiddy anime girls? Senran Kagura, Hyperdimension Neptunia and Monster Monpiece all exist. WHY WOULD DRIVE GIRLS BE THE HILL THAT YOU DIE ON?!?

So on this public platform let me tell you all why you are not allowed to enjoy Drive Girls. The story is repetitive, trite and nothing emotionally interesting or new. The characters are bland and unmemorable. The driving has absolutely no nuance to it, no difference between how the cars drive, controls are basic and the road is so littered with mines that it doesn't make sense to use this mode either way. The fighting is also basic. You can get annoyingly stun locked going from full health to death without reprieve, and if you spam the heavy attack you can do the same to the enemies. Oh yea, and it lags absolutely horrifically, and with sound effects that annoying it's a game best played on mute. If you play it at all.

On my journey to play the whole of the Vita library I have no regrets on sampling Drive Girls, but it is a fate I don't wish to put others through.

 

Source: @VitaGameClub

 Finally, for my own retrospective (@videogamesaslit), I chose Mary Skelter Nightmares:

The Vita Island Game Club has helped me play a lot of Vita games that I may otherwise have overlooked in my gaming journey. Mary Skelter Nightmares is a game that I was always interested in playing, especially since it is so famed for the rarity of its physical edition, but I may have easily passed it by and forgotten about its existence since it is not one that the online gaming community often discusses. From the moment I first started playing the game, the thing that most struck me was the soundtrack. The music in this game hit me with serious nostalgic feels, such that I could have sworn the composer must have been Tenpei Sato, famous for his work with developer Nippon Ichi. While Tenpei Sato was not connected to this project, I suspect he was the source of strong inspiration for Mary Skelter's music team. The music, characters, and color scheme in the game also strongly reminded me of the Nintendo DS game A Witch's Tale, which was another nostalgic favorite of mine from the early days of my serious game collecting journey. While the story of Mary Skelter has some of the oddities that its developer, Compile Heart, is often notorious for, I am really glad that I got the push to actually play this game, and I can definitely say that I enjoyed it.


I can't wait to see what the new year brings as we continue to play the Playstation Vita long after Sony's declaration of its demise! I'm sure we will find many options to choose from as we play our way through the year 2022. 

Review: Unsighted by Studio Pixel Punk

 

Artwork showing a variety of characters from Unsighted.
Source: link

For my first official act of Sci-Fi Month 2021, I played the new indie game Unsighted by Studio Pixel Punk (check it out on Steam here). While I played the PC version, this game is also available on Switch, X-Box, and PS4. Unsighted is an original game with a science fiction setting where the majority of characters are automatons, including the game's protagonist, Alma. Veteran gamers will notice subtle references to the Legend of Zelda series: in the music, sound effects, collection of items, and especially in the fairy automaton companion who travels with Alma in her journey to save her friends. References to other games and even to gaming culture abound, and my favorite reference is to @CanYouPetTheDog, which is apparent in achievements you receive when you, naturally, pet the dog. 


Screenshot of a hand petting a dog on the head.
Screenshot of a dog being petted by Alma.

I was not able to finish the game before posting the review, but in the approximately 9 hours in which I played the game I got a very good feel for all of the important elements you may need to know (According to HowLongToBeat.com, it should take most players between 7 and 15 hours to complete the main story of Unsighted, but if you know me you know I am usually the most leisurely of players and I take my time enjoying the story, characters, and environments so I tend to fall on the longer end of the play-time spectrum, meaning that I played maybe about half the game.)

The rest of this review will be divided into categories, in the order of which I think the game did best. My personal feelings about the game lean strongly on the positive side, but there were a few areas where I thought the game could be improved.

1) Characters

If there were a game of the year award for best characters, I would give it to Unsighted. The developers clearly put a lot of work into creating a wide variety of individual characters with their own personalities and attributes. The secondary characters are just as important to the story as Alma herself, since a main goal of the game is to save as many of them as you can. Alma's friends will truly tug at the player's heartstrings as they tell you about their past with Alma, their lives before the war began, and their goals for the future. It is also important to note that even though the characters are automatons, and were canonically manufactured by humans, they still represent a range of body types and racial features, showing players that there is no one "generic" look for humans or for automatons. My personal favorite characters, and the ones I first gave my meteor dust to, are Samuel and Tobias.


Samuel saying, "But... I... really value the time we've spent together."



2) Story

As you may have been able to tell in the previous section, the story is simultaneously heartwarming and sad, almost like a Pixar movie. This makes the game hook players in, as we want to reach the end to find out what happens to the characters and world we've grown to love. Some parts of the story do seem overly dreary from time to time -- a war is actively taking place and there are horrors roaming the land -- some of which were previously automatons who could even have been friends with Alma. These dreary parts are simply part of the overall picture, however, and if you are able to focus on the good parts (reuniting with Alma's friends and meeting new ones, collecting and crafting tools, etc.) you can easily get through the more scary parts. Think of the Fallout series, but with fewer zombies and more cute puppies. 

3) Accessibility

In terms of accessibility, I can't speak for everyone's accessibility needs. I can, however, speak for my own, and this game certainly has better accessibility options than most games. There are some areas where I feel the game could be improved. First, the difficulty settings are great, and even greater: there's an invincibility mode. There are also settings to make a lot of other aspects of the game easier for disabled people, including text size options (I'm glad these exist though I feel the difference in size for the three size options could have been greater), font options, and the ability to switch between keyboard/mouse and controller as needed. The biggest issue I faced as someone with low vision was that the environments were difficult to navigate, and I believe this would have been difficult even if I didn't already have vision problems. I'll talk about this more in the level design and graphics sections of my review. See the screenshots below for the option pages. 



This is not exactly an accessibility problem, but I will say it here anyway. The title of the game comes from the tragedy that occurs to automatons whose time runs out: they become "Unsighted." This is where they lose themselves and their personalities and basically just become killing machines. The wording used for this tragedy unnerves me -- is it ableist against blind people to equate loss of sight to loss of self? I don't want to be the definitive voice on this matter as I myself am not completely blind, but it is something to think about.

Edited on 11/30/2021 to add: Fernanda Dias, one of the developers of the game, messaged me on Twitter to clear up my confusion about the word Unsighted. She said, "UNSIGHTED in the game means "missing", not "blind". When an automaton is about to become unsighted, they often flee and hide in order to not hurt others around them."

4) Graphics

Graphics, of course, are a very subjective category. Personally, I have grown especially fond of 16-bit style graphics in recent years, in large part due to my love for Stardew Valley. While some players may not love the art style of Unsighted, which falls into the pixel-graphics category, it is still quite clear that the game's designers put a lot of work into the art of the game, from the individual characters who each have their own unique look, to the architecture of the setting, like the old gothic cathedral that is central to the main city in the game. Even the weather looks spectacular -- there are many instance when it is raining, and yet the characters and backgrounds stand out among the raindrops. The only problem with the graphics is that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the floor and the roof of the building next to you. Is that a building, a platform, or a pit where Alma might fall to her death? Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and just... find out, and with the *very* unforgiving HP bar you have in this game, testing a black section of the game and falling can mean game over. Thankfully, the game has that aforementioned invincibility mode, so if you're in an area (like the city) where there are a lot of deadly pits, you can just turn on invincibility as you navigate your way through the world.

5) Controls

The controls are... fine. They're fine. But they could be better. I am always happy when a game allows for controller or keyboard/mouse input on PC. That said, I feel like there are some things you have to do manually that could have been mapped to the controller/keyboard better. For instance, I couldn't find an easy way to switch between equipment quickly. It got really frustrating in certain parts of the game where I needed to switch between three or so different things on a very regular basis. Alma only has two hands, so of course she is only able to hold two pieces of equipment at once (including her sword, which I used for most of the battle in the game). I would have liked a quick switch feature like the one you find in most Zelda games, or in Animal Crossing New Horizons. Otherwise I had few gripes with the controls. They're generally pretty basic and easy to follow. 

6) Level Design & Puzzles

I hear some people really like puzzles in their adventure games. For some people, it's really exciting to push giant boxes around and try to figure out how to get to the next room (even though you have bombs and/or grenades in your inventory and... couldn't you just blow a hole in the wall?). If you didn't figure it out yet, I am not one of those people. This may originate in the fact that I was a "gifted kid" growing up and from an extremely young age I was constantly forced by the school system to complete puzzles and brainteasers, and that got tiring. But I digress. There are a lot of these types of puzzles in Unsighted, which you might expect from a game that is heavily inspired by The Legend of Zelda. And of course, I can handle a puzzle or ten in my games -- I do play a lot of adventure games, after all. But when I have to do several puzzles that are difficult to figure out, I get tired, and I feel like Unsighted lands just over the line of what constitutes "too many puzzles." Unsighted's puzzles may not be so frustrating that I rage-quit the game, but they are often frustrating enough to deserve a mention. You will have to work your brain with this game. Whether that's an exciting prospect or not is up to you. And as I mentioned, there are issues with the perspective in the game's level designs that may have you confused about where Alma can and can't walk -- this in itself is a bit of an unwanted puzzle. 

A few notes to conclude my review: as I was playing the game the developers were regularly releasing patches, so if I mentioned an issue that you can't find in the game, it may have been patched before or soon after this review was published! This is one of the wonderful things about playing indie games whose developers really care about the game and its players. 


I received a copy of Unsighted for free in exchange for an honest review.


For more information about Sci-Fi Month, click here



Introduction to Sci-Fi Month 2021

 

Banner that says 1-30 November Sci Fi Month

Once again, November is here and with it comes Sci-Fi month! If you're unfamiliar with this yearly event, you can read more about it here. This month I will be focusing on some indie science fiction games. Early in the month I will be reviewing Unsighted, a new release from indie developer Studio Pixel Punk. I hope to also catch up on some sci-fi games from my infinite backlog. Depending on how I'm feeling and on how busy I am I may also try to fit in some book reviews? Nothing too ambitious. 

The artwork for this year's promotional material was made by Liu Zishan.

Thoughts on the new Far Cry 6 Trailer

Official artwork for Far Cry 6, picturing the villain and his son.


Last week a new "story trailer" for Far Cry 6 was released, revealing a bit more about the game's protagonist and, more importantly, its villain. As I have discussed at length before on this blog, the unique beauty of the Far Cry franchise is the way that it handles the trope of "good versus evil," or more specifically, evil versus extremely evil with some "good" qualities. In other words, the Far Cry games are nothing if not complex when it comes to the characters. There is no such thing as a purely good human in the Far Cry universe, and players are constantly being confronted with complex moral dilemmas. 


In this trailer it is revealed that the moral dilemma that drives the game involves using slave labor to grow tobacco which, apparently, can treat cancer. It looks like the game will delve into the issues surrounding the pharmaceutical industry, which is certainly a real-life moral minefield. The trailer also looks at the perceived innocence of children, as the villain's young son is central to the story as portrayed in multiple trailers (the reveal trailer released a year ago shows more of this father and son relationship).


It should be mentioned that the Far Cry franchise pretty consistently blurs (or crosses) the line of racism and what stories are appropriate for white/western creators to tell. Many of the games take place in countries that are not considered "Western" and the villains are often people of color. It is questionable whether it is okay for European game developers to tell stories about the evils of humanity while using people of color as their examples. In Far Cry 5 the villains are very much stereotypical white American characters, but was that one game enough? As I myself am a white Westerner, I prefer to defer to those who are culturally closer to the subject at hand, though upon searching for sources I am finding that a lot of the discussions about racism in Far Cry are being led by apparently white men. (Here is one such article and here is another.) I did finally find an article written by a woman of color, but she leaves the discussion of racism open for individual thoughts and opinions. Basically, this is a subject about which we should all think critically.


In the meantime, I am very excited to get my hands on and play Far Cry 6. I absolutely loved entries 3 and 4 in the series, and was less than happy with the fifth game, but not to the extent that I have sworn off the whole series (don't get me wrong -- I was very excited about the premise of Far Cry 5 -- I just had some issues with the gameplay that kept me from completing the game). What do you think about the upcoming game? Let me know in the comments!


Book Review: Fierce and Delicate by Renée K. Nicholson

 

Star Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I'll start by saying that the moment I heard this book was coming out, I knew I had to read it. I, myself, was a ballet student when I was young, and the experience shaped my whole life, even though I had to quit at a young age. I still have pretty much the entire Nutcracker Ballet memorized. When I was in ballet it was my whole world. Like the author of this memoir, I had to leave ballet (and gymnastics, which I also loved) due to my progressing chronic illness, though in my case my illness was life-long and I had to quit while I was still a kid.

Reading the early chapters on Nicholson's early experiences in ballet felt like someone writing about my own life. And then reading about her early struggles with learning that she had arthritis and trying to cope with it... well, my experience was a little different because I always knew I was sick, but it was still extremely identifiable to me.

In later chapters she discusses her experiences in academia, as a dance teacher and as a writer. Once again, I can identify. I don't know enough about dance to teach it, but I have worked in academia most of my adult life.

Basically, I feel that I have such a close personal connection to the experiences shared in this book that it is impossible for me to look at the book objectively like some other reviewers have done. And that's okay because I feel like I might be the one person in the world for whom this book was written.

So if you, too, have personal experiences with ballet or with quitting your passion due to disability, this book may be just right for you. I enjoyed it and found it very readable, though as I said, I was eager to read it because it felt almost like I was reading my own life story.

There are a few trigger/content warnings: as this book is about ballet, there is some mention of disordered eating. There is also some description of medical procedures, surgeries, etc. and there's a bit of ableism (I felt like the author was going through some soul searching and internalized ableism). There's also a chapter where she mentions visiting Russia and talking to Romani people, but she uses the common slur used to describe them.

This review can also be found on Goodreads.