Quick Thoughts: Red Riding Hood, The Pied Piper, & Kabuki Board Games

I recently tried more younger player aimed games with my niece. While they didn’t all have quite the hook for older / more experienced gamers like my previously examined Abraca…What? and Sushi Go!, they still presented fun experiences simple enough for younger players yet with a bit of depth to entertain those playing with them.

 

Red Riding Hood, The Pied Piper (Tales & Games)

The first two I’ll talk about are from the Tales & Games series, which are games based on stories and fairy tales that come in wonderfully thematic boxes designed like books.

Immediately striking is the quality of components and visual style of these games. The boxes don’t just look like books, the top flips open like a bookcover. Inside said covers are setup diagrams for the included game, which is a great touch. The cardboard chits and tokens are of decent weight, and each game had at least a couple of wooden character pieces.

In deciding to try these my main concern was that they’d be generic games with the theme haphazardly pasted on. Reviews seemed to indicate that wasn’t the case, so I chose two that seemed most interesting and had the most postive buzz. There are six different games in the series so far.

I’m happy to report my concerns were in fact unrealized. Each game is fairly suitable to it’s inspirational story, with goals and mechanics that make sense.

In Red Riding Hood the goal is to get Red to Grandma’s house before the wolf. There are two game modes, one with everyone alternately controlling Red and one with one player as the wolf against everyone else. We only played the co-op version, so I can’t comment on the differences nor the mechanics of playing the wolf.

Gameplay centers around a press your luck element where each drawn card can increase the number of spaces Red might move, but at any point if you draw a card with lower value than those already on the board everything is cleared, Red doesn’t move, and the wolf gets closer.  There are a couple other aspects, like a shorter but risky secret path to take and bonus movement when a card depicting Red is drawn, that add depth without making things too complicated. My niece loved this and the rest of us found it fun enough.

Pied Piper has a little more to the mechanics, with each player trying to keep their house from becoming infested with rats. The infestation level is marked with a tracker that moves up whenever a rat passes their house and down when the Piper does. Movement is determined by player directional arrows on cards that are color coded to correspond to specific rat tokens in between the various houses. We tried this with just two players, which was fine but it really seems the game would be more interesting with more people.

Like Red Riding Hood I think this is great for the target ages, but here the younger players are at a clear disadvantage against older players who can process and plan what the different arrows will do in sequence. Be careful not to be too ruthless when playing this one with young gamers, as I imagine it could frustrate them quickly.

Overall though these are two distinct, well done games that make good use of the recognizable themes. I’m curious to see what the other games in the series are like.

 

 

Kabuki

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Kabuki really is a brilliant little gem. It’s a “simple” memory game that has an actual game built around it. There are four performer cards, which are the bases for four piles. On each turn a player draws a mask card and places it on one of the piles. That’s it. The key is you’re trying to play it on a performer that isn’t already “wearing” that particular mask. If another player thinks the mask you played is already in the pile, they say “stop” and call for a check of the pile. If they’re right they take one of your victory points. If not they lose one to the bank. That’s it. Most points at the end of the game wins.

It’s a wonderful elegant variation that puts everything in the players’ hands. The chosen theme lends itself wonderfully to the concept, as the mask cards can be stylistic in a way that makes it hard to remember exactly what’s in each pile. Yet when masks are side by side they’re quite distinct and easy to tell apart (which is equally important). Beautiful, vibrant artwork enhances both aspects. Most colors have 2 different mask versions (blue has 3 and green only 1), and each mask version has 5 copies in the deck. So eventually a copy of every single mask will HAVE to be played in a pile that already has a copy.

The straightforward core mechanics make Kabuki extremely easy to teach, yet remembering the contents of the piles as the 60 mask cards are played will tax anyone’s memory. Perhaps best of all the playing field is pretty even, regardless of age and experience of the players. Overall my niece was just a little faster at calling out misplays and a little less likely to be wrong and won most of the games we played (with a variety of opponents all older than her). While she enjoyed all five games mentioned between this column and the one linked to above, I think this was her favorite (with Sushi Go! and Red Riding Hood close behind).

 

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That’s all for now. Hope to be back with more soon. 🙂

Ocean Waves Review

On the verge of his high school reunion, Taku recalls how all his problems began with a transfer student’s arrival.

 

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The 20+ year old “lost” Studio Ghibli classic featuring high school love and all the awkwardness that goes with it finally sees a US release, and I had the opportunity to catch it during limited screenings in NYC.

For context, I’m a middle of the road Ghibli fan. I appreciate the general quality and have favorites among their films that I consider incredible, but I don’t go crazy for every movie they do and was lukewarm on several I’ve seen (and outright hated one).

So I had no preconceived expectations really, which made it even more interesting when this fell firmly in  the gray area of my personal opinion. Most things have high and low points, but usually there’s a predominant overall impression, be it good, bad, or indifferent.

Recently I played a video game (Zero Time Dilemma) that bucked that trend for me in that I both liked and disliked in pretty much equal measure. That same conflicting batch of feelings perfectly describes my reaction to Ocean Waves.

Given that most of the film is told as a memory, there’s a fog of “unreliable narrator” feeling that envelopes the story. It’s the epitome of a double edged sword here. It makes sense that certain things would be more vivd in his mind than others and that he wouldn’t always notice or know other’s motivations, which helps establish the drama and his personal point of view as main character, but it also presents characterization issues with regards to the rest of the cast. A big part of the problem is that the film conveys early on that most of what we’re seeing is a memory, but then presents that memory in the style of objective reality, which leads to thematic and empathy issues.

Arguably the third most important character in the film felt like nothing more than a story prop to me after a decent introduction. He acted as the plot demanded instead of naturally, and needed to come across as much more likable than he was for the themes to click properly.

The narrator’s narrow field of view also causes a particular moment that should have been meaningful and dramatic to instead end up uncomfortable and cringeworthy. I know the point is supposed to be that he doesn’t understand where the other person is coming from and acts out because of it, but without due exploration of the other person’s side of things the movie appears to be taking sides, to ill effect.  All in all I spent most of the movie wanting to like everyone more than I actually did.

Yet there’s still something incredibly captivating about Ocean Waves, particularly in the latter half. I really wanted to know what happened to Taku, Rikako, and Yutaka almost despite myself. Their reactions felt authentic even when not built up fully and the oddness of everyday life and everyday worries was captured with a deftness I’ve seldom seen. The movie shines in its small moments, when the story gets out of its own way.

I wouldn’t give Ocean Waves a strong recommendation, but again I did like as much about it as I disliked. I think overall what it does right overcomes its flaws enough to be a worthwhile watch despite my highly mixed feelings (and of course others end up loving it if their tastes and tolerances are different from mine).

 

 

Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Review

This combination of two distinctly different, beloved franchises takes an archeology professor, a lawyer, witches, and shakes liberally until thoroughly mixed.

 

Wait… witches?! O_o

 

…ok sure why not. It’s not like a fantasy setting can really make Phoenix Wright’s adventures much stranger. 😉

 

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The prologues set up things well, with related events separately running afoul of Professor Hershel Layton and Phoenix Wright. These segments serve to establish the gist of each character’s gameplay elements as well as the central characters.

In an interesting choice the art style from each separate game is kept for its characters. The mix is a little weird at first, but I got used to it quickly and it was probably a better approach than trying to force one set of iconic characters into the other world’s style. Also, the backgrounds tie it all together pretty well.

Similar to the mixing of art styles is the mix of going back and forth between the disparate gameplay mechanics.  I found it jarring at first and a bit forced as during the first half of the game it was basically switching each chapter. But it ended up melding together much more naturally and seamlessly by the end.

While I’ve played and enjoyed both series, I’m traditionally more of a fan of the Phoenix Wright games. Yet here the Professor Layton elements were perhaps just a touch better, likely due to fitting the story more naturally. The trials were a bit contrived, and some of the constructions and limitations implemented to extend them (and thus the gameplay) were ridiculous.

However they were still enjoyable, and the new mechanics introduced (group testimony and related elements) were fun and well done. Also, the “railroading” feeling and unreasonable burden of proof being foisted on the defense fit the themes and historical events obviously being alluded to.

On the opposite side the puzzle elements were pretty much classic Layton. Sometimes appropriate and interwoven into the narrative well, sometimes shoehorned in, yet nearly all reasonably fun and varied in difficulty.

Once everything starts to come together, Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright uses a couple of strong, nuanced characters to anchor the plot amidst a silly supporting cast that keeps the tone from getting too dark. Parts were overly melodramatic, but that’s par for the course with both these series and it never derailed the tension.

Things just kept escalating and provided an excellent story with compelling mysteries, strong foreshadowing that simultaneously avoided spoiling things, and some phenomenally clever twists and red herrings. The story’s climax was fantastic, and overall I left Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright extremely satisfied with the journey I’d been taken on.

Highly recommended to fans of either series, just make sure to stick past the somewhat uneven start.

 

T.I.M.E Stories: The Marcy Case Board Game Review

I love the general setup of T.I.M.E Stories and really enjoyed the initial adventure (Asylum). I’d heard mixed things about this followup first expansion and was curious to see if the potential of the established mechanics would continue to be capitalized on.

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As with my review of the base game / first mission I’ll try to be as spoiler free as possible.

The overarching structure and premise of T.I.M.E Stories remains the same: the players work for a time travel agency and go back in time on missions. Each player is sent back into a receptacle (character), Quantum Leap style, and they must work together to figure out what’s happening and complete the mission. This expansion provides a new story deck representing a completely new mission from the one included in the base game.

Here the brilliance of the design choice to use token and symbols that can be reassigned to different meanings from mission to mission really shows. It allows context appropriate and specific characteristics and items that enhance the story and fit within the particular adventure and time period the players find themselves in.

For example where in Asylum characters might have to talk their way out of certain situations using a “glibness” trait, here the ability to “search” affects how the scenario unfolds for the players. There are other traits, items, etc that are defined within the scenario being played yet use the same components and rules established in the base game.

And highlighting the flexibility those design choices allow might very well have been one of the primary design goals of this expansion. A friend of mine summarized it best with the comment that The Marcy Case “demonstrates the versatility of the system.” It does feel and play quite different from Asylum, and I think that was pretty much the whole point.

I understand why people expecting more of what Asylum was would be somewhat disappointed (and I honestly do think Asylum was just a little better), but this was still an excellent entry in the series that captured that same atmosphere of tension and adventure. Perhaps most importantly like Asylum also had a strong theme and story, including meaningful choices to be made and some of the best and well executed red herrings I’ve ever seen (even if they did sometimes make me want to pull my hair out).

Additionally the conveyed detail and nuance of the environments to be explored and general immersion that is achieved with just cards continues to be amazing. I know I’m harping on it a bit but the framework of T.I.M.E Stories and what can be done with it just incredible.

 

 

That’s not to say that this was perfect. As I mentioned in passing above I did like Asylum a touch more, and there are a couple of minor things here I would have liked to seen done differently (that I can’t get into due to spoilers). But I thought it was great overall and don’t agree with the idea that it suffers for being different.

 

Overall

The more I play T.I.M.E Stories, the more and more I adore it. Bring on the next expansion. 🙂

Quick Takes: Magnificent 7, Jason Bourne, Suicide Squad, and X-men: Apocalypse

So if there’s one thing a 14 hour plane ride is good for, it’s catching up on movies I’ve missed. Here are brief thoughts on four films I plowed through on my way to Japan last month.

 

The Magnificent Seven

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Watched this on a whim, mostly due to the impressive cast. Decent Western with good setting, although the story would have been stronger if it was more along the lines of its synopsis. It wasn’t a bunch of guns for hire that grew to care the more they learned about the situation, as their “leader” Washington was never there for the money in the first place. It hampered the themes a bit. Also, some characters (such as Pratt in a remarkable performance) were much more interesting than others and stole the spotlight when the movie focused on them. Still, overall this was pretty compelling.

 

 

Jason Bourne

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Here we have the first of three movies I had waited on because of less than favorable reviews. As will become a theme for all three, it was better than I expected.

Though their trademark “shaky camera” fight scenes always leave me near nausious, I enjoyed the previous three Jason Bourne movies and was happy with Damon’s return to the role. This was definitely a retread in numerous thematic ways, but I thought the story fit with and expanded upon the previous narratives nicely. Not fantastic, but good enough.

 

 

Suicide Squad

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Well first off this wasn’t nearly as horrible as I’d heard. It was a mixed bag though, with highlights and weakness throughout the film. My biggest worry from what I’d seen in trailers was Smith as Deadshot, and those worries were both justified and unfounded. Smith actually played a fine character and played it well, but it didn’t feel like Deadshot at all. Writing weakness there. Similarly while this was an ok action film with some interesting plot and character touches, it didn’t feel like Suicide Squad. Glad I checked it out, but nothing I ever need to see again.

 

 

X-Men Apocalypse

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From word of mouth I expected a trainwreck from the latest X-Men movie, and in contrast I found a solid story that built off of First Class and Days of Future Past well. It’s admittedly not as good as those two films and so big in scope some characters (looking at you Psylocke) got shorted in the script and were underdeveloped. The overall arc was good though, Apocalypse was a worthy foe, and my biggest worry (Magneto as a Horseman) was done logically.

 

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So overall I spent a pretty enjoyable time on my flight with four films that provided both nothing extraordinary and nothing really bad. I don’t regret either skipping them at the theaters nor eventually watching them.

Ice Ribbon 1/3/17 Live Thoughts

January 3, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan

Like last year, my last Ice Ribbon event during my trip was their New Year’s show. The show itself though this year was a bit different, as I was lucky enough to see one of IR’s most interesting themed shows.

 

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Photo op with the roster from this show. 🙂 

 

The opening segment set up this show as Survival Ribbon (YAY!), with teams led by Tsukasa Fujimoto and Ice Cross Infinity Champion Risa Sera respectively. It was pointed out to me by a friend that the teams were divided by time in Ice Ribbon, with Tsukka heading up the veterans and Risa leading the less experienced competitors.

So it split up as Tsukasa Fujimoto, Miyako Matsumoto, Hamuko Hoshi, Mochi Miyagi, Tsukushi, & Kurumi on one team and Risa Sera, Uno Matsuya, Tequila Saya, Kyuuri, Maruko Nagasaki, & Maya Yukihi.

The rules were as follows:

  1. There would be six matches between randomly paired opposing team members.
  2. All winners would advance to the main event, which would be a tag match between whoever won the preliminary matches to determine the overall winning team.

All the undercard matches had five minute time limits, leading to a quick pace and a sense of urgency.

 

The entirety of each team came out to start things out and remained at ringside to cheer each other on, leading to an incredible atmosphere for all six initial matches. Everyone on the outside was highly invested and constantly provided encouragement to those in the ring. It made such a difference and  showed how important it is the have competitors care about the stakes, even if it’s “only” bragging rights.

 

 

 

1) Uno Matsuya vs Mochi Miyagi

Good choice for an opener, with the least experienced member of the roster against a larger, formidable opponent. This match introduced the previously mentioned frantic pace and electric atmosphere, and both were kept up throughout the show. Uno plays a great underdog and looked good here, taking the fight to Mochi at times and persevering to force a time limit draw. Neither wrestler moves on to the main event.

 

 

2) Tequila Saya vs Kurumi

Saya was announced first, and she entered the ring enthusiastically until her opponent was announced, at which point she collapsed in the corner in realization of the task in front of her. Totally put Kurumi over as a monster in five seconds flat before any contact was even made.

The story was similar to the first match, yet the personalities and styles involved made this something distinctly different. Saya survives the assault long enough for time to run out, forcing another 5 minute draw.

 

 

3) Maya Yukihi vs Hamuko Hoshi

This is the point at which IR gives a master class in the theory that predictable is perfectly compelling when done right (as opposed to my complaints about how they handled Ribbonmania’s main). I had an inkling here, and by the end of this match I was 99% sure I knew where everything was going. But between good matchup choices, great action, and logical progression the ride was just as satisfying as if they’d pulled out surprises.

The story for this match was Maya being the equal to former IR champion Hammy, and while both had close calls neither was able to put the other away and once again time runs out without a winner. So halfway through and so far neither team has any representatives in the main event, with both captains left to compete.

 

 

4) Kyuuri vs Tsukasa Fujimoto

So Kyuuri is the one who draws the opposing team captain. I never get tired of this matchup, pitting IR’s biggest up and coming star against its ace. They have incredible chemistry, and they made the most of the available time to put on an a phenomenal contest. Kyuuri matches Tsukka all the way and we have another time limit draw. The teams outside are getting desperate, again adding to the tension and conveying a real sense that these matches are important.

 

 

5) Risa Sera vs Tsukushi

So Tsukushi’s the one who gets to face the reigning champion, in a matchup of the title tournament winner against the one semi-finalist she didn’t have to go through. These are two of IR’s top stars at the moment and like the previous match they make the absolute most of their allotted time. Tsukushi hangs in with the champ and this ends in yet another 5 minute draw.

These preliminary matches needed to be action packed and show desire on the part of all competitors to push as hard as possible to get a win for all these time limit draws to avoid falling flat, and all of them definitely were.

 

 

6) Maruko Nagasaki vs Miyako Matsumoto

And it all comes down to Maruko and Miyako, with whoever wins this being the only person to advance to the finals and thus winning for her team by default. As such the wrestlers on the outside are going INSANE cheering their representative on. On one side is the perennially overmatched underdog Maruko, and on the other the overconfident and mistake prone Miyako. Wonderfully amusing choice for the all important final preliminary contest.

Playing off the urgency, theres a fun part in the middle that’s classic Miyako as she takes her sweet time firing up the crowd and slowly striking Maruko as her teammates flip out over the clock running down. This was a little off formula from the earlier matches, as Miyako just couldn’t stop being Miyako despite the time pressure. Good story to pull out at the end.

The crowd had been seriously engaged throughout each match and as things wound down here the anticipation was palpable. But this too ended in a time limit draw (to the exasperation of both team on the floor), and the ref announced no one had advanced and thus there would be no main event. Risa quickly decided this wasn’t acceptable, and set up a tag match involving the full teams against each other. Logical and well done.

 

As everyone had been at ringside or wrestling for the entirety of all six preliminary matches, they all needed time to go into the back and prepare for / take a momentary break before the “impromptu” main event. So the injured Akane Fujita came out an talked/stalled for a bit until it was time. The crowd seemed engaged with whatever Akane was saying, and it’s nice to see her involved with IR as much as she can be while she recovers.

 

Main Event) 12-Women Tag: Risa, Maya, Kyuuri, Maruko, Uno, & Saya vs Tsukka, Hammy, Mochi, Miyako, Kurumi, & Tsukushi

To everyone’s credit, they managed to match the level of engagement and excitement of the earlier matches and provide a fun, fast paced main event. My memory wouldn’t do justice to the details of twelve wrestlers flying around. Was great though, and the champs team was victorious when Kyuuri rolled up Miyako for the pin. Between wrestling Tsukka to a draw and getting the win for her team here Kyuuri came out of this show looking like a million bucks, which makes me very happy.

 

 

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Just a fantastic show overall from IR. Loved the concept, execution, and energy they kept up from start to finish.

Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma Review

The Zero Escape trilogy comes to a close with a departure from the Nonary Game. Life and death are on the line again, but this time in a deadly Decision Game…

Zero Time Escape is a direct continuation of VLR, features numerous characters from first two games, and ties up plot threads running through all three games. While ZTE does a good job of summarizing important points from previous games I feel a ridiculous amount of important context would be lost without having played the others first, so I highly recommend not starting with this one.

In an effort to remain as spoiler free as I can while still getting into detail about what I liked and didn’t about the game, I will avoid using character names as I discuss things to prevent spoiling elements of 999 and VLR.

 

 

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9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors remains one of my favorite games of all time, and I was pleasantly surprised that while not quite up to 999 its sequel Virtue’s Last Reward was still an excellent game that continued in the vein of the first in fine fashion.

 

I mentioned in my review of VLR that I wasn’t sure I liked where everything was going storywise, and while I couldn’t possibly predict what I was in store for here I was in some respects both right and wrong to be trepidatious. In classic form ZTE’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness: its ambition. In attempting to be more mysterious and mind bending than 999 and VLR, tie up three games worth of reality twisting plot,  AND introduce no less than FOUR major shake ups to the gameplay formula it was bound to collapse under its own weight at points.

Let’s start with the changes to gameplay. Changing the nature of the game our protagonists play is expected and needed, and the specifics of the Decision Game are reasonable enough (if contrived at times).

Two of the other big changes go hand in hand. The group of nine this time is divided into subgroups of three people. These divisions are preset, so the player has no control over who gets paired with whom. The player will jump from one group leader to another throughout the game, temporarily controlling that character for the duration of the chosen “segment.”

The concept of segments is the other big change that ties into this structure. The Zero in control of this game gasses the characters after each game and erases their memories. So things do not unfold chronologically. The player chooses one of the segments available for the team they feel like playing and get a chunk of the story (with appropriate decisions and puzzles) which could be anywhere in the timeline flowchart. The flowchart is filled in as these are completed so long term you can see how things are coming together, but between playing things out of order and jumping between different point of view characters constantly the flow and immersion of the game is severely hampered.

Another drawback of having three isolated teams is the timelines being traversed are no longer a full exploration of the various combinations of choices made. The first two games used choices made by a single character as branching points, and as such were able to fully consider the consequences of those choices. Here it simply can’t be done due to the unwieldy number of combinations. So as the chart gets filled in there are particular combinations that are simply not represented. Now the story is certainly big and complicated enough as it is, but having “gaps” surprisingly makes the game feel more “linear” and out of the player’s control in a way despite the looser structure of choosing fragments.

With all that said, everything from the amnesia approach to the point of view jumping has an in-game, story based explanation and reason. That makes it all more understandable looking back once finished with the game, but it doesn’t necessarily make these aspects more enjoyable while playing.

 

Which brings us to the last major shakeup in gameplay. Progression from certain branch points are determined by chance. That’s right, there are points in the game that have to be played over and over until the game chooses to give you the result you need to get on the other branch and proceed. This is beyond ridiculous and annoying. Again, there is a important story related reason they needed to be there, but there had to be a better way to address and implement them.

Having to explain these complicated points in such detail to properly convey my issues with them likely gives the impression that I didn’t like the game (and that impression will no doubt grow when I start dissecting the story). But that’s not the case. The mysteries are compelling, the atmosphere appropriately tense and harrowing, and the puzzles and gameplay decisions interesting.

As for the story, it’s insane in scope and yet still manages to come together nicely and ties up the trilogy rather neatly in the end. The philosophical aspects get more and more captivating as things go along, and the numerous different threads intersect in jaw dropping ways.

The biggest problem with the scope is some important things invariably end up being underexplained. I have particular problems with the characterization of one person from the previous games whose actions and reasoning are inconsistent and inadequately justified. Things with this character happen for the sake of the plot of VLR, and result in erratic, unlikeable behavior. The writers also try way too hard to be clever, and at least one of the many shocking reveals is more groan inducing than interesting.

Yet everything is internally consistent (both within ZTE and with what has come before), most of the characters have good depth and are suitably intriguing, and some of the reveals are legitimately brilliant and engrossing. It’s harder to talk about what I liked in the story without spoilers, but there was more than enough here to keep me engaged until the end.

 

So I have major mixed feelings about Zero Time Escape. It’s easily the weakest in the series, most of the changes attempted fell flat for me, and I wasn’t happy with some of the story choices. On the other hand it juggled an insanely complicated plot reasonably well, felt like a Zero Escape game with all the puzzles and mind bending mysteries that go along with it, and had some legitimately compelling characters and twists.

Definitely worth playing to close out the series, but it wears its flaws on its sleeve much more apparently than 999 and VLR.