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‘Soul Blazer’: A Candid RPG about Life and Death

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“Like good sleep comes after hard work, good rest comes after an honest life.”

At first glance, Soul Blazer doesn’t leave much of an impression. After all, the Super Nintendo was never in shortage of top down action games. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, and even Soul Blazer’s sister game, Illusion of Gaia, catch the eye quicker than Soul Blazer every could. There’s a very isolated quality to Quintet’s sophomore outing. At the same time, it’s exactly this quality which makes Soul Blazer so compelling. On a platform so full of life, in a genre that— at the time— was so intent on creating full worlds, Quintet opted for an RPG completely devoid of life.

Starting up, the world is empty. There are no NPCs littering the overworld, there are no shops, and the only guiding point the player has directs them below the surface to slay monsters. Death has taken its toll on the land and left nothing but nature itself in return. Much of the game’s introduction is slowly spent showing the scope of death. Humans have died, animals have died, and plants have died. It is the onus of the player to reverse death and restore life to the land. For as morbid and twisted as the premise is, an easy to overlook opening actually shines light on the rest of the experience.

Soul Blazer’s frankly casual opening won’t elicit much emotion, but Quintet’s depiction of death and rebirth is not an emotional one. Rather, the introduction serves to showcase death as a natural part of existence. It isn’t so much that death is unavoidable— a fact the story does linger on quite frequently in passing— but that death often occurs without much fanfare. Truly, the opening cinematic grants no fanfare to how the world ends, instead stating it in a matter of fact manner, an approach Soul Blazer is quite fond of.

It can be easy to dismiss Soul Blazer’s casual approach to such a hefty subject as a sign of the times, an indication that developers weren’t quite treating their stories with as much respect as they should or could, but that would be a gross misunderstanding of the narrative’s style. Considering how matter of fact death is depicted, a more sensationalized or romanticized depiction would fly in the face of the core themes at play. The one major death that occurs on screen won’t strike up any tears, but that isn’t its purpose narratively. Soul Blazer is a title that takes the emotion out of death to show it in its purest form.

It’s fitting, then, that players take control of Blazer, a character who cannot die. Divine in nature, Blazer, too, is devoid of emotion, simply existing as an arbiter of life. In order to restore life to the world, Blazer must kill swarms of enemies in order to reclaim lost souls. Appropriately, enemies who breed new life do not respawn, instead remaining dead for the rest of the game. Death’s permanence isn’t shown through the player character, but through enemies.

Which, in turn, is a strange approach for an RPG. In a genre that often features grinding, said approach to game design effectively locks players from progressing further than they’re expected to. While not every enemy stays permanently dead, the ones that do respawn tend to offer the bare minimum in terms of EXP, hammering in the idea that death is omnipresent. If nothing else, the fact that only the loss of life can lead to the restoration of life makes for a powerful frequent concept in the context of Soul Blazer.

Although some NPCs return to life specifically to aid the player on their quest, most simply exist for flavor text. They don’t advance the plot, they don’t bestow the player with newfound power, and they don’t lead the way to a new area. They only exist for their dialogue. Where the majority of NPCs fail to linearly progress the game, they almost always expand the core theme of death. A character may lament about the finality of life. Another might take bliss in the idea that, despite their imminent death, they have no qualms as they live each day to its fullest. Some might just comment on the suffering that goes hand in hand with living.

What makes these moments powerful isn’t an emotional center or character attachment— in truth, even the most unique NPCs are as bland as they get— except in the candidness with which they discuss death. Death is a casual subject, one that almost feels inappropriate when compared to other games from the era. There is a distinctly mature approach to the script. Soul Blazer is comfortable in its subject matter in every respect and wants players to understand the sheer scope of death. Even though much of the game is spent reversing it, there is never a moment that shies away from reminding audiences that they will die.

With that in mind, what does it mean to die in Soul Blazer? As a game about death, it’s only fitting to break down how death is fully represented. Gods clearly exist in the world of Soul Blazer, but there does not seem to be a conventional heaven or hell. Reincarnation exists and is a natural course of life, but one’s memories don’t follow. Death is cyclical in a sense, coming and going like an ebb and a flow. When one’s life dies, another is born (or reborn.) Perhaps the most interesting approach to death comes through the Gnomes.

The wardens of the fourth area Blazer visits, the gnomes are born, live, and die within a single year. Spending time talking to said gnomes shines lights on their struggles, or lack thereof. The recurring thread tying the gnomes together is the fact that their culture openly embraces the idea that they will die within a year. With only one year to live and die, the gnomes choose to live their lives as blissfully as possible, taking comfort in their fate and pursuing their passions. It doesn’t matter that they’ll die in a single year. What does matter is that they choose to live as much as possible.

Life’s fullness isn’t tied to time, at least not in Soul Blazer. More time seems like a natural blessing, but the gnomes are proof that life can be fulfilling regardless of how much time is lived. This is a concept the final boss directly comments on, suggesting that Blazer’s eternal life is nothing short of misery. For as much time is spent reversing death, Soul Blazer wants its audiences to understand that death is by no means bad. It almost seems paradoxical, then, that the premise of the game is more or less a revenge story against death itself, but that’s fitting when taken into account the varied depictions of death.

It only makes sense to rebel against death, and who better to rebel than the person holding the controller? Soul Blazer is not a particularly difficult game, but players will still likely die at least a few times on their journey, another inevitability. When a player dies, loses, or gets a game over, the natural response is to overcome said failure. If the premature death of the world in Soul Blazer is a failure, it only makes sense that the core gameplay premise will resonate with anyone familiar enough with the medium. Soul Blazer’s story could be told in any medium, but only a video game medium showcases the weight and scope of such a premise.

Which more than makes up for the cold approach to storytelling at play. Regardless of how deliberate Soul Blazer’s presentation is, audiences naturally resonate more when they can directly relate to the characters and conflicts at play. Even other RPGs from the time were already playing up more traditionally gripping narratives. Just a year prior, Square released Final Fantasy IV, complete with full character arcs, an emotional center, and more than its fair share of plot twists. Soul Blazer, by comparison, doesn’t come off in the same league.

At the same time, it isn’t trying to and that in itself is important to recognize. Soul Blazer didn’t follow the trend of increasingly dramatic RPGs. Rather, Quintet saw an emphasis on narrative rising and chose to embrace the style and little else. At the end of the day, the plot is hardly the most important aspect of the narrative. What gives Soul Blazer pathos is the casual philosophies NPCs are more than happy to share. Life may be impermanent, but that hardly has to be a bad thing.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child

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Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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Games

‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some other trash.

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Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

In the 15 year long history of DLC, we have seen some really shameless displays. The notorious horse armor incident of 2006 and a notable day one DLC for the ending game of a trilogy notwithstanding, few companies have had the utter audacity to offer so little content for such a high price point. Enter Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind.

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some social media nonsense for people who really hate themselves. That’s really it, that’s what you get. Honestly, Square-Enix should be utterly embarrassed by this DLC.

It’s been one year: 365 days, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, or 31556952 seconds, since the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Let that sink in as you begin the meat of Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind. Think of it as the extended version of a movie you really like… you know, the kind where they add 4 minutes to the 120 minute runtime.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind, really is that cynical. I’m not kidding when I tell you that the game literally starts with an exact cut scene from the base game, and a cut scene that happens to be available from the theater mode of the main game that you’ve already bought if you’re playing this DLC. Yes, the introduction to this new content is… content you’ve already seen.

In fact, that’s kind of the sticking point here: most of what you get for your hard-earned cash is footage you’ve already seen, and battles you’ve already fought, and story you’ve already experienced, just with slight alterations for context. Remember back in the 2000s, when we were super obsessed with prequels? This is like that, except even more egregious.

Generally I’m not so unforgiving as to call a company out for a forthright cash grab, but that’s absolutely what Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is. There’s just no other way to put it. You might find someone in the marketing department for Square-Enix who would disagree, but being a company that has faced just these sort of allegations for their last two major releases, Square-Enix either doesn’t read the news, or doesn’t care what people think of their products.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Square-Enix was roundly accused of shipping unfinished products in the case of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III — their two most high profile releases of the last decade. I personally gave mostly positive reviews of both games for this very website but if you want ammo to suggest that this company is deliberately trading on the nostalgia and passion of its fan base in order to make financial headway, there are few examples you could draw from that are as obvious as this DLC.

Look, maybe you’re a really big Kingdom Hearts fan. Maybe you just really wanted to know what the context was for that cliffhanger ending in Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe you just don’t do much research before you buy something. Or maybe… you just really trust this company for some reason.

Hey, I’m not judging… hell, I bought this DLC for $40 same as anyone else. I oughta be honest that I’m not reviewing Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind as some holier than thou critic, talking down to you from my position of privilege. No, I’m an angry consumer in this particular case. I’m a person who spent enough to replace a flat tire on my car, or buy my family dinner, on a game that is clearly playing off of my love for a franchise, and using it to bilk me out of money in a method that is so clear, and so concise, that those involved in the entire endeavor should be totally embarrassed for their part in the creation, marketing, pricing, and distribution of this expansion.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, fans had their complaints about Kingdom Hearts III. “Where are the hardcore boss battles? Where are the Final Fantasy characters? Where are the secret areas? Where are the hidden plot developments?” Still, to address these particular complaints by hammering a few minutes or seconds here and there into already existing content is truly like spitting in the faces of the people who have built the house you’re living in.

I haven’t sat in the board rooms at Square-Enix and I haven’t been in email chains about the planning of projects at their company but what I can say is that there is something rotten in Denmark if this is what passes for a satisfying piece of content for the wildly devoted fans of a hugely popular franchise in 2020. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is literally, truthfully, and succinctly, the worst piece of DLC I’ve ever purchased.

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