But the simulation is basically just a model the game is cast around. The real core is the choices, and the choices revolve around how your budding witch is dealing with her social life. As the cover picture suggests, her potential romances play rather heavily into these considerations. And it's around the time I'm flirting with a teenage bad boy demon that I realize this game is a bit off the beaten trail from the usual thing. But in a really good way. This isn't my first visual novel, but this is the first that allowed a female protagonist and refused to be exploitative of either her or the rest of the cast. There's always something very strange about playing a game that allows relationships; we can kill hundreds of things, critters, and people in games, but when we realize we're trying to manipulate virtual characters emotionally, things get uncomfortable--for me, at least. And that did happen here, but it was also at the point when I realized that I cared about what happened to these characters, which took off some of the burden. That's effective writing. And while the plot borrows very, very liberally from a certain other wizard school based series, it is its own thing as well, in large part because of its female protagonist. (Incidentally, the default name for our spell-slinging heroine is Mary Sue, which is both awesome and indicative of the game's humor.) I think what I liked the most about the game was that it's a visual novel that manages to do high school romance without indulging in that nastiness that pervades a lot of Japanese-made games with similar plots.
The other game is... Demon's Souls. Dammit, Demon's Souls.
This one will be a little faster, as I'm still playing the game, and still figuring out what I think about it. Demon's Souls is the first game in the Souls series; it sold moderately well and its sequel, Dark Souls, was a bonafide hit. The game's essentially a hack and slash, where you go up against some incredibly difficult foes building up to a boss often of the proportions shown above. It is a HARD game. The monsters are fairly merciless, the save points are few and far between, and the deaths come frequently. That's where the game's money system comes in. Whenever you die, all the "dark souls" (the game's currency) you've collected get dropped with your corpse. All the enemies then respawn, and you can fight your back to the body and reclaim the lost souls--but if you die on the way there, those souls are gone forever. It creates a double tension; whenever you have a large number of souls, you start panicking about getting back with the souls you've managed to accrue, and whenever you die, you start panicking that you can't get close enough to get the souls before dying again.
It's been really interesting to play, because the game does such a nice job pitting you between joy and despair. My first playthrough, I quickly got to a point where I thought the game was absolutely beyond me. I couldn't get past the bosses (or even to the bosses) that I had access to, and my weapons were degrading at a rate that seemed faster than I could accumulate souls to repair them, let alone put the souls toward healing potions or other desperately needed items. So I started over, and this time, I realized that if I farmed the monsters directly around a save point, I'd could... well, I still died a lot, but my corpse was so close to the start that I could retrieve it easily and build up a stockpile of souls. I got a few good rounds, bought some good armor, and, miracle upon miracle, actually got better at the game. And that's the secret of Demon's Souls success, I think; it forces you to develop these ad hoc strategies for dealing with a hostile world.
Two games, both based in a magical world, but wildly, incredibly different. Glad I got a chance to play them both.