Those of you who have taken note of any of the half-finished projects littered throughout this site might note that I have no shortage of worthwhile things to do. I have to make a proper scan of that Ghost Head manga. I need to tend to a number of things for the Angelique translation project. I have that Actraiser manga to summarize, which is miserable but historical, sort of. I have a number of half-finished posts for this site, and a number of half-finished translations for my other one. I'm in the middle of Super Mario Wonder. I have an entire three-year-old list of games to which I've been meaning to get that I've been neglecting.
So what did I spend a great deal of my recent time playing?
Yes. I'd run across the perjorative descriptor of "Kemco RPG," seemingly referring to a no-effort, mass-produced RPG rife with in-app purchases and pandering to retro tastes, in reading Shaun Musgrave's exhaustive work detailing Switch releases at TouchArcade. I had no first-hand experience with the material, however, nor any desire to correct that deficiency. Then, after Kemco made some sort of milestone news by announcing a celebratory collection of 50 of these titles, I ran across this thread, in which the poster (who has also detailed his experiences going through every game in a few of those 100-in-1 cheapo handhelds you see at Walgreen's) talked about how he had played through of these allegedly-shovelware titles and actually enjoyed quite a few of them.
While heartfelt, that wasn't quite enough of an endorsement for someone with Dragon Age and Tales of Phantasia still on her plate, but I was again piqued by the seemingly self-consciously dumb premise of the story for Wizards of Brandel, which I'd also encountered on TouchArcade. So I decided this would be my point of contact with this evident mountain fo garbage; it went on sale for the Switch; and I bit. And I finished it. While Dragon Age and Tales of Phantasia remain unplayed. This makes it the perfect game to represent my 2023.
You play as a callow young wizard named Darius, and I had to look that up after almost 14 hours of gameplay (was it Damian? Darien?), which should tell you something about nomenclature in this game.
In addition to studying his craft, Darius/Damian/Darien likes cooking and writing books on magic using cutesy pseudonyms ("Holy Angel Feline Princess"). Despite the domestic inclinations, he is a mouthy jerk. A Brony?
The game starts - and this is the hook that grabbed me - as Darius wakes up one morning to find that his home has been stolen from around him while he was asleep.
It turns out that Darius has been turning to alternative loan sources to fund his magic research and was so engrossed in his studies that he lost track of the payment schedule. His house got repoed.
The good news is that Darius promptly manages to find refuge with a friendly wizard who's a big fan of his work and would like to talk shop. The wizard is wicked powerful, despite seeming to be about 5 years old.
Of course. The bad news is that Damian's new bud and landlord turns out to be the land's apparent Dark Lord. Before Darius can get a handle on this and reconcile his biggest fan's purported rap sheet with his childish crying and love for custard, Darius and his friend - who has the distinctly un-Dark Lordly name of "Mark" - run up against an occupational hazard in a Dark Lord's life: a holy warrior coming to kill him, what the game insists on calling a "female swordsman":
You might think this an editing oversight, but no, this is her consistent title, and it pops up in the promo material, too:
She hasn't quite grinded enough to face down a final boss, though, and after she's subdued, Darius decides to get to the bottom of what's going on, if only to secure a stable housing situation free of perpetual home invasion.
That was the goofily prosaic, workaday premise that hooked me. Unfortunately: that's not the actual story. The Dark Lord/housing crisis plot is actually forgotten for much of the game's length. Shortly after, the group runs across a villager who's been turned into a Legend of Mana character...
She claims this happened after her village was attacked and she landed in the Magitek Factory, where she was infused with demon DNA for unknown reason. Erica, the female swordsman, thinks tracking down Biosystems and discovering who or what is behind it is a job for her Guild, where maybe she'll bring up the Dark Lord thing on the side.
All right, let's get gameplay out of the way here. It's apt that a Legend of Mana character is on tap, as like Legend of Mana, this game has a slew of systems you will never need or use. I could go over some of them, like each character having a selectable, levelable partner spirit who can bolster their combat actions or attack on their own, or the ability to boost stats on your weapons through feeding them weaker equipment, or a Limit Break gauge (that's not the exact name, but it's something like it) that lets a character continue to fight for a bit without passing their turn or expending special attack charges or something - I don't know, because I used it like once and then never again. It doesn't matter, because you will not need to use anything but auto-attack AI for anything but bosses until the end of the game. I finished off the final boss, in all his Dancing Mad glory:
in three attacks. I used the permanent stat-boosting flowers you can grow in real time from bulbs you get from combat whenever they blossomed, plus a couple of overpowered weapons I won from a gacha machine with the free hit of premium currency they give you (that you also win in dribs & drabs with combat), and I never wanted for anything. I never touched a single restorative item and can count the number of times I used healing magic on both hands, possibly one, with fingers left over. They keep throwing special currencies and special attacks and weapons and better familiars and challenge towers and battle arenas where you can win stuff at you, and no one would reasonably need any of it.
This is by design, so far as design exists in this no-effort title. Its goal is to give you the experience of playing an RPG, after a fashion, without any of the challenge or demand on your brainpower or engagement. The complete lack of resistance is the appeal. It's actually kind of insidious, now that I think about it. It's solely about gratification - and that may sound like a weird complaint: how dare this game, this product made expressly to elicit enjoyment, be all about gratification, but it's not the joy that comes from engaging with a heartfelt work of art, a product of creativity and skill. It's about brain-dead gratification, about punching numbers-go-up dopamine receptors and that deadened going-through-the-motions gameplay you usually reach only at about 2 a.m. in your weekend play sessions, and is actively hostile to anything involving brain activity or imagination or artistry. It has so many needless systems because it wants to deliver that gratification no matter what flavor of RPG stat or equipment futzing you prefer. without any resistance.
I've tried, in dissecting this morass, to come up with an explanation why I made time for this game and not anything actually worthwhile in my life like unfinished projects or quality titles, and I'm afraid the best answer with which I can come up is: I'm tired. I've been running back and forth the past six months trying to resolve a number of real-life problems and get myself in a better place. I don't have the resources left for quality games that would engage my intellect or entangle my emotions, both of which are mentally exhausting. Brain-dead leisure activities are all I can manage, so here I am, suckling on low-value garbage for non-taxing comfort. I went through a period while playing this game where I was delaying real-life stuff I needed to get done on a very tight timetable in favor of scrolling advice subreddits because I was physically and mentally exhausted. There were points where I should have taken a nap but was afraid that I'd waste an hour, so I would instead waste three on low-energy activities. Even with Brandel, at the first fight where I couldn't rely hit AI Battle for an "I win" button and had to, you know, enter commands turn by turn in response to changing battle conditions (several bosses and hours in), I said, "well, screw this" and fucked off for a while.
Presentation-wise, save for the sharp and expressive character art - which is charming and appealing, though reserved for a select few characters - I'd want to say "This is an RPG Maker game," if that weren't an affront to the number of creative fan projects I've played on that platform that actually do go the extra mile and distinguish themselves by breaking storytelling barriers. The art limitations come from the same "I'm a writer who can't make custom sprites and has to stick to the off-the-shelf sprite sheets" well, despite Kemco being an ostensible company with entire graphics divisions and shit and not a lone bedroom programmer. Like, Darius sleeping in bed in the intro is just his standing sprite superimposed on a bed sprite.
Darius's sprite doesn't even have its eyes closed. Save for their battle victory poses (which are cute), the sprites don't have expressions. The game obviously did have access to some work from sprite artists with a good degree of talent, as there are good generic RPGMaker monster sprites:
And there is some work that had to be bespoke, like those victory poses:
But that well was obviously limited, and the team evidently couldn't have new art created past a certain point. For example: the plant-hybrid body of the Legend of Mana character, Phelia, will sometimes wither if she doesn't drink enough water. This is represented by, um, work of a markedly different caliber than the rest of the game:
That is the artistic equivalent of "Now bear my Arctic Blast."
The IaP shop advertises a variety of special items that can change the characters' battle costumes, but the only ones offered for sale to me were a swimsuit and a school outfit, which were fine (I saved up the free premium currency from combat for them) but not to my tastes; the top hats and ballgowns in the feature's ad banner never materialized. I did, however, like the watermelon mace I got from the gacha machine, which served Darien well for a good long time:
Musicwise, the handful of tracks are very much off-the-shelf.
I'd like to address the plot, such as it is. About halfway through the game, the "female swordsman" is fatally injured. Damien borrows Dark Lord Mark's magic to descend to purgatory and plow through a waiting room of recently-deceased souls (which is, despite the utter lack of imagination used in depicting it, a kind of funny visual, with Darius plowing through the recent dead like he's trying to find his friend at an airport terminal: "Are you Erica? No." "Are you Erica? No") to bring back her soul.
Darius indeed manages to retrieve Erica's soul, but he and Mark can't reunite it with her on-ice body for some reason, so she awakes in a different vessel:
I don't watch Black Mirror, but this is from a Black Mirror episode, right? This is a Black Mirror episode.
She can transform back to her original form for combat or special occasions, but it takes a toll on her magic, so she is usually in the form of a walking, talking pink stuffed penguin. EVERYONE TAKES THIS IN COMPLETE STRIDE:
THEY CAN RECOGNIZE HER SOUL IN THE STUFFED ANIMAL'S EYES. THE STUFFED PENGUIN'S SEWED-ON DOLL EYES.
Otherwise, there's not much to surprise. I imagine you're not exactly expecting Live A Live or Baten Kaitos here. The major elements include Erica's Guild, the global authority with omnipresent reach, who surely will make everything right:
Plus their headliner
Four Three Heroes, who surely are not bosses:
And you meet this helpful and supportive yet mysterious bishounen:
Now, I don't usually advocate changing character names. I would here. Cloney is an omnicompetent background player during your adventure, always there to lend a helping hand without any apparent motive. He's also the mayor of one of the more sizable towns and last in the line of deposed royalty - and everything would be all right if only he would be king of the entire world!
I don't think I need to tell you what organization is behind the Legend of Mana monster experiments, or who the Zemus of the adventure is. I'll admit there were a few moments where I thought that Mark was the Dark Lord, where his innocent demeanor seemed a bit too convenient and practiced, but I suppose an actual twist would have been too much writing effort.
Well...that's not exactly true. There is a twist. A nonsensical one, that will actually take a bit to explain.
See, one of the game's many, many, many subsystems involves a source of fetch quests from NPCs where the items they seek are delivered (offscreen; no graphical representation, of course) via a service called the Treasure Trust. The flavor-text explanation includes the name of the wizard who founded it; fine, who cares.
OK, so it's eventually revealed that the Zemus with whom you've been holding court the whole game isn't actually Cloney - the real Cloney's been held captive in his own manor the whole time. The actual villain has just hijacked his name, post, and appearance. (I guess the name was intended as a stilted clue?)
The wizard who's posing as Cloney is...the wizard who founded the Treasure Trust. A one-off NPC of no significance beyond a measure of magical power and managing to have a surname in an RPG. It's as if the real villain of Chrono Trigger were revealed to be Norstein Bekkler.
At the climax, the wizard, in a We're Not So Different, You and I moment of kinship with the "I was so busy studying I forgot about my mortgage" hero, reveals that he founded the Monster Factory program to conduct experiments so that he could achieve immortality...and, thereby, his goal of being able to continue his research indefinitely.
The final boss has embraced ultimate evil because he's one of those permastudents who never wants to leave college and enter the job market. If nothing else, at least the game ended on the same simultaneously workaday yet utterly ridiculous note on which it started.
Shut up, Damien.
I'd like to end, predictably, by addressing the translation in a patience-trying, possibly-incorrect wall of text that is likely of limited interest to most anyone reading this. You may have noticed that the translation is not of the best quality:
There's even a "don't come!" at the end:
The end credits attribute the translation to one person with an Anglo-Saxon name. I'm not going to name them, because I don't want to drag them personally, if they indeed exist (see below). However: it is very odd nowadays for a game to be translated by one person in the professional space. (It happens all the time in fan romhacking, but in the professional realm, where deadlines and accountability are more of an issue, you usually have multiple translators for redundancy/expedience/quality checks, even though quality was not a high priority anywhere in this project.) Lack of context for lines, time crunches, and inadequate pay (and thus motivation) can be big drags on translation quality in gaming projects, but I'm seeing other factors at work here.
I don't have the source text, so I can't check for sure, but it doesn't read as if the translator couldn't figure out the content of what was being said, most of the time. It seems more as if the translator had trouble phrasing the translation in a manner that was accurate to the Japanese but conveyed what was being said naturally in English. This is a challenge and comes with experience. However: translators who have trouble in this regard generally don't break into the highly-competitive professional game translation biz, much less get to translate projects all by their lonesome. There are also turns of phrase in Brandel's script that a native English speaker wouldn't use - the one that stuck in my mind was how characters consistently talked about "launching" magic instead of casting it.
If I had to take a guess, I would say that we're looking at a machine translation that was inadequately edited - by a translator who was a) using AI surreptitiously to compensate for either inadequate pay or translation ability; b) a non-fluent speaker of English; or c) hired by Kemco to edit an AI script provided by the company and who couldn't be bothered to bring the script up to snuff due to the lower rate that work commands. Possibly a combination of b) and c).
Let's look at the first case. Unethical translators sometimes do try to get away with surreptitiously submitting machine translations when they've been hired to produce work from scratch in situations where a human eye is of particular importance (medical documents, anything literary or to be consumed for entertainment). I've been asked a few times myself to review work to see if it's machine-translated. Companies sometimes do try to get away with absurdly low rates, but I've seen this scam pulled in situations where the compensation was fair and/or where the translator should have known that errors could have a real-world impact, such as medical reports and patient care instructions. It seems to be used primarily by translators who are in over their heads somehow. (One case I reviewed involved a translator who was hired to work on pharmaceutical documents but very apparently had no sci-med expertise whatsoever. They kept referring to saline solution as "NaCl water.")
There are signs, though, that the stiltedness comes from a human pen, not that of a machine. For one, the stiltedness is consistent throughout the script. It's not as if an editor just forgot to finesse a few phrases; the editorial voice itself is stilted. For another, AI sometimes spits out complete garbage sentences - I don't mean stilted; I mean pure nonsense collections of random or repeating words when it gets hung up on syntax or phrasing it doesn't recognize. There's nothing of that here. (They could have been edited out, but that returns us to the hand of a human editor actively correcting non-natural language in the final script.) For a third, there are odd translations, like the "launching magic" thing, where an AI would be trained to use a more prevalent collocation ("casting magic"). "Launching magic" is the mistake of a human who knows the phrase for performing magic in English uses a verb meaning "to throw" but doesn't know which synonym is used in the common phrasing. If this mistake originated in a machine translation, I would expect at least one instance of the proper phrase to slip through, instead of the confident use of "launching magic" all the time. (There's also the "fightback" portmanteau, where you can make out the meaning but which isn't an actual English word; while I've seen AI do stuff like this on occasion, it's more common as a mistake from human translators, where they're trying to reverse-engineer a term from their own language by direct substitution of the English translations of its components.)
For a fourth...well, I've had instances where editors not fluent in English have edited my own work, and the results read like Brandel's script. Though it's an excellent way to tank your company's reputation for quality, translation firms like hiring non-native speakers as editors on the cheap, be it for human or AI translations. I suppose the train of thought is that editing is just icing on the translation cake and that it can't negatively affect the base quality of a solid translation, even though editing is meant to enhance readability and provide a final polish, and that hiring someone who isn't fluent in a given language to produce readable, polished prose in it - to take apart and reassemble something whose workings one doesn't understand fully - is a self-evident recipe for disaster. Incompetent editors can take an excellent translation and render it complete word salad.
I'm not trying to hector anyone for their language ability here. Languages are hard, and English is hard. I'm just trying to explain what happened to Brandel's script through the lens of my experiences, coupled with the info we have. This game obviously didn't have a budget; the script isn't straight AI, as the language used doesn't track, and there isn't the garbage that AI produces; at least some of the stiltedness present isn't of the variety that AI would produce. I believe we're dealing with an overmatched, non-fluent editor of a machine translation here.
However, there's the relative lack of verb tense slip-ups, a big problem in non-fluent work, plus that the fact that the script does use a bit of phrasing - a bit, like "There's a limit to how open 'open' should be" - that I don't think a non-fluent speaker would produce. I almost want to entertain the idea that a less-fluent editor thoroughly screwed up a more-fluent translator's work, which would explain the presence of this bit of almost-fluency and the absence of any apparent outright mistranslations but also the pervasive stiltedness. I don't think this project had the budget for an editor, though.
The ultimate cheap-out route that wouldn't involve just throwing an unedited AI script in the game would be to hire someone to edit, not translate, an AI-translated script provided by the company. This would enable Kemco to pay a discounted editing rate instead of a full-fledged translation rate, which companies love doing. (Hiring from a market where labor is typically cheaper than those where English is a first language would likely cut costs even further.) Despite my attempts at amateur sleuthing above, this is probably what happened, being the Biggest Cheapskate timeline, despite the "non-fluent translator" option not accounting for spots of slightly heightening understanding in the script and the "fluent but doesn't give a damn due to low pay translator" option not accounting for linguistic weirdness seemingly not caused by AI.
I realize, now that I've gone on for paragraphs, that I've contradicted myself a few times and haven't come to any real definitive conclusion - that I've invested a huge chunk of time into an effort not remotely worthwhile. Which is perhaps the most fitting capstone on my experience with Wizards of Brandel.
Let's end on a rare note of translation triumph, with the name of this enemy:
It is never explained who or what "Brandel" is.