1. The visuals! Puzzle platformer-come-action RPG Even the Ocean is most readily set apart by its visuals. It's from the folks who made Anodyne, a cross between Yume Nikki and Link's Awakening that explored, in an abstract way, its young hero's feelings about his difficulties in fitting in due to his Asian heritage and economic background. What drew me to Even the Ocean, besides its pedigree, was the pixel art. The natural environments in this game are gorgeous:

A special mention for Riverton, home of that bridge in the third pic, one of the most picturesque villages I've seen in a video game:

But there's another brand of visual distinction at work, and that's in the people populating the world. Name another game that has a heroine who looks like this:

Then there are the NPCs:

It's a much wider cross-section, in race, body type, and age, of unglamorized everyday people, and that's not something you see much in media in general, much less video games.

2. The gameplay! The gameplay, and game world itself, hinges on the interplay between the world's foundational powers of Light and Dark energy, characterized by green and purple glows, respectively, with Light associated with vertical movement and Dark with the horizontal. (You can think of them as more colorful analogs of yang and yin.) The main setting is Whiteforge City, which prides itself on harnessing Light Energy to create staggering technological advances and a soaring metropolis. Your refreshingly butch avatar is Aliph, a rookie power plant technician who's taken on her new career just when something seems to be going wrong with the plants.

You can probably guess where this is going from the synopsis, particularly when very obvious FF7 Weapon analogs start showing up, but Even the Ocean takes a unique approach to exploring the scenario, at least. First, there is no combat whatsoever. When apparent enemies do appear, Aliph and her fellow technicians note that they're not monster hunters and (in a pointed contrast to gaming convention, where nearly every job is inevitably boiled down to a combat-ready spec set) that their professions in no way equip them for fighting.

Your charge instead is just to make your way through to the repair sites. Colliding with various obstacles within the awry plants will imbue you with increased Light or Dark energy. Too much of either is fatal to Aliph. High levels of either, however, do have benefits: a great deal of Light Energy allows Aliph to jump higher, whereas a higher dose of Dark Energy allows Aliph to move more quickly and jump longer distances. Your job, then, is to juggle what is effectively a health continuum (as opposed to a health bar) to avoid obstacles and get where you have to go, leveraging the risk of traveling in a precarious state of health against the mobility boosts you need to reach your goal.

It's a puzzle platformer, and in addition to the Light/Dark jump/speed buffs, you'll continually explore other new abilities: the shield Aliph salvages from the exosuit that's busted in her opening mission, for example, can be used to deflect energy (for protection or strategic deflection), to sail along on gusts of wind, to grind on rails, or to skip over water or energy beams. Each area seems to introduce a new wrinkle, a new method of movement, and they're all interesting and fun (though this does lead to a few sticking points later on where you're expected to recall how certain mechanics work that you haven't encountered in a few hours). The sheer variety in your moveset combines with the brevity of individual screens - puzzles are thoughtful but well-paced and saves ample - and the focus on the motion of the obstacles to give the game a welcome zippiness, a sense of forward movement, that makes Even the Ocean feel very dynamic, particularly for a puzzle-centric outing. It's to EtO's great credit that even though the title is completely devoid of combat, I never felt starved for action. That's a feat.

It's well-thought-out and fun, and there's one accomplishment worthy of particular note: the controls are great. Controls are typically highlighted when they're bad. I hate wall jumping. It will get me to turn off a game faster than any. I loved the wall jumping in Even the Ocean. It is the wall jumping ideal. It's what it should feel like. The devs were obviously in this project to tell a certain story (more in a moment), but there are difficult gameplay design challenges here that they absolutely nailed. It's a joy to move in this game. It's the gameplay of Super Meat Boy except not made for idiot masochists.

3. The....ENDING. Yes, this is one of those games that has...An Ending, the type where discussion of the title isn't complete without an in-depth, spoiler-filled discussion of the denouement, since it colors your whole experience. It's groundbreaking and offers a perspective not seen in games, but I wonder if it doesn't betray some of what's made Even the Ocean special before that. Endgame spoilers and discussion under the cut.

I've been playing Picross S: Genesis and Master System. The best aspect of it, compared to other Picross games, is that the puzzles don't get unmanageably large as difficulty increases. I've played Picross titles where the endgame puzzles were expected to take over 2 hours, so to have difficulty hinge on, well, difficulty instead of attrition is refreshing.

The big problem is that part of the joy of Picross is seeing what you're solving come together as the puzzle progresses, but, frequently due to disparities in the original pixel resolutions vs. grid size, the puzzles don't really look like anything, even when you've solved them. For example: what is this?

If you like the games about which I post on my main site, you've encountered the subject of this puzzle before!

You'd be forgiven for not recognizing Wren, though. How about this puzzle?

The likeness is better but still not great.

That's not his portrait, of course.

(Taken from Modern Retro Gamer; sorry, the wiki doesn't have it for some reason.)

They're using these weird...derezzed recreations, I guess you would call them, to fit the Picross grid. Sometimes they stray a bit further from recreations. Wren's looking a different way from his original portrait:

And then there's Rika:

I've wished they'd make new art for these puzzle titles that draw from pixel games instead of just giving you freeze-frames of well-known art you've seen countless times, but this stuff seems like splitting the difference to no one's satisfaction. It comes off as lackluster approximations of better art, which is what it is.

Keep your eyes on Rhys & Rolf here while I lodge some miscellaneous complaints. There are ten pages of regular black-and-white Picross but only three of full-color Picross, which is a shame considering the brights palettes of the Genesis's standout titles. The game includes a third mode, "Mega Picross," where lines and hints for said lines bleed into each other, but it layers so many rules upon unintuitive rules upon Picross's elegant structure that I couldn't keep track of them all. (That Mega Picross actually *recycles art* from the other modes didn't help my engagement.) The game provides dozens of hours of entertainment, but I had to complain regardless.

Finally, an accurate likeness.


ETA: ADDING MIEU FOR COMPLETIONISM:

Meteorological summer, that is, which is what really counts; no one goes outside on December 20th, amid the snow and carols and Christmas lights, sniffs the frigid air, and thinks, "ah, autumn."

A couple summers ago, I had the pleasure of playing through most of Boku no Natsuyasumi 2, a '70s Japanese childhood summer vacation simulator for the PSP. The game reminds me, counterintuitively, most of A Christmas Story in that the painstaking specificity with which it recreates a very particular time and place paradoxically gives it a universality: its brings its setting to life so vividly that it enhances audience identification with the commonalities of childhood experience. (Man, that's a mouthful for a simple technique used to wholesome effect.)

You play a young elementary-school boy who's been sent to a relative's back-country island inn for a month's retreat while his mother delivers his new sibling. During your backyard summer-vacation adventures, you can buy ice cream treats from the freezer from your allowance, have beetle fights with the local kids (no one, human or insect, gets actually hurt), swim around the island and discover sunken treasures, chase & catalog bugs, make crayon pictures chronicling discoveries like a secret waterfall or the remnants of a young engineer's rocket experiment, and, of course, pester neighbors. The only problem is the day is never long enough to pack in everything you wanna do. But that's the problem with real-life summer days, isn't it.

But there are several other guests at the inn, one of whom bears a resemblance to someone from a manga that's been getting much attention here as of late. Gruff and unsociable, Taniguchi (the names are even similar) is always found alone, seeking solitude in nature, brooding at the edges of the young hero's story, alluding to the nature of the troubles weighing on his mind only vaguely - confident, correctly, that the boy won't understand the full extent of his problems. I have no idea of Tagak's criminal past, but Taniguchi's woes lie in an old robbery he helped mastermind - one for which he saw no payoff and for which he is about to, as he says, "pay the piper." My time with Boku no Natsuyasumi 2 came to an end the day he made an ominously sudden disappearance from the story, failing to turn up despite an island-wide search party. I had no appetite to see his story end at the hands of suicide or the shallow young-shit investigator shacking up at the inn under the barest of who-cares-you-hicks pretenses. Even if we didn't talk much, though, the summer days I spent with Taniguchi on the periphery were a little like seeing an old friend.

I've been divorced from Tumblr for a while now, but recent events have gotten me looking back through the tag of fanart I commissioned from the platform's artists. Much of it is of little-appreciated characters who have some sort of foothold in my heart - many of my commissions were attempts to redress the balance on that account. It might seem odd that I didn't gravitate more toward commissions for the characters who are dearest to me, like Ghaleon: the answer there is that I didn't want to give them bad fanart in case something went awry. (This hardly happened, and looking back, I see that I got downright criminal bargains for the work I purchased.)

So here we go. Artists Tumblrs etc. are linked when possible, but a few folks are lost to time, it seems. (But speaking of which: Tumblr and I might be getting back together for a brief period if I can make that Funato commission happen. That work will demand a wider audience.)