Welcome back to Gaming IRL, a monthly segment where several editors talk about what they've been playing in their downtime. This month we've been loving Super Beat Sports and Stardew Valley and taking an early look at Nintendo's Animal Crossing mobile game. But first, let Kris Naudus tell you about the scariest dating sim she's ever played.
This article contains spoilers for 'Doki Doki Literature Club.'
Doki Doki Literature Club
Kris Naudus Senior Editor, Database
It's sort of impossible to not have expectations when you start a game. I certainly had preconceived notions when I began playing Doki Doki Literature Club. I'd seen headlines that proclaimed it one of the scariest games of the year, and I certainly knew I was in for something... interesting when one of the opening screens warned that people with depression should not play.
The game looks like another dating sim, with your main character wooing the girl of his choice from among three options: the cheerful best friend (Sayori), the quiet geeky lady (Yuri) and the nasty but secretly nice freshman (Natsuki). Your courtship is conducted by writing poems, angling your word choices toward the girl you hope to end up with. I found the whole thing rather tedious. But when the girls would show me their own works of poetry, the cracks started to show. They were weird. They were unsettling. Clearly we were heading somewhere outside of the normal bounds of otome games.
The more I progressed with sensitive girl Yuri, the more my relationships with the other girls unraveled. Monika, the president of the eponymous literature club, was catty and passive-aggressive. Natsuki hated me. Sayori confessed that she suffered from severe depression. But it was when Sayori revealed her true feelings to me that things fell apart.
I could either tell her I loved her or reject her with an affirming "You're my best friend." I became disgusted with the game. I was angered by the obvious emotional blackmail, even if Sayori never actually said, "I will hurt myself if you reject me." I had already committed myself to choosing Yuri. So I rejected Sayori. And the game did exactly what I expected it to.
Still, I felt awful, and resolved to do "right" by her on my next playthrough.
That's one of the things we count on with video games. You live, you die, you live again. You can always reload your last save, start from the beginning of the board or even reset and do the whole thing all over again. This is especially important with visual novels and dating sims, where you might want to play it again to see all the paths untaken. This is expected enough that some games now count on it, requiring multiple playthroughs to reach the "true" ending like the Zero Escape series, or rewarding you with new story paths and game modes like Hatoful Boyfriend does.
Doki Doki Literature Club punishes you.
I figured I'd pick Sayori the next time around, if only to see what her story would have been like, to see how things would have been different if only I had just chosen her. But when I loaded the game, she was nowhere to be found. She had been removed from the game.
The choices are always wrong. You're always going to fail.
So, with that choice removed, I made a play for Natsuki instead. And while I did everything I was supposed to do, I somehow ended up getting scenes with Yuri again and again and again, until... well, things continued to go wrong.
In the end, that's the real horror of Doki Doki. In visual novels, you're supposed to make choices and have those decisions matter. Sometimes you're wrong and you fail, but you try again. Here, the choices are always wrong. You're always going to fail. The game will emotionally abuse you as long as you continue to play. It will even break down the fourth wall to do it, something that made me scream, even though I knew the entire time it was just a game.
I'm constantly reminded of the ending of War Games, where "the only winning move is not to play." And if you never open Doki Doki Literature Club, all of the girls get to live and be happy. Or not. It's Schrödinger's cat, but in a file folder.
Opening this box made me feel awful. But it also constantly surprised me. It's like riding a roller coaster, or watching a jump scare in a horror movie. You feel a terrible shock for a brief moment, and then you find yourself laughing afterwards. Doki Doki didn't make me laugh, but it subverted my expectations and denied my choices so brazenly, I can't help but smile a bit.
Rob LeFebvre Contributing Writer
Oh, I do love Stardew Valley on the Nintendo Switch. I've just gotten through winter, my least favorite season so far, and my virtual farm is finally shaping up again. I've got beanstalks, parsnips and a few other "springtime" seeds in the ground, and I'm watering them daily with my upgraded watering can, which can pour across three different plants at once. I've got a full chicken coop with four egg-layers in there and a barn with a couple of cows that just started producing milk. I know pretty much all of the folks in town, including the wizard and that weird ancient mariner who has a magic amulet he refuses to sell to me.
If video games are all about a sense of progression and mastery, Stardew Valley ticks all the boxes. It's clearly inspired by the Harvest Moon games, though it also has a touch of Animal Crossing thrown in for good measure. You are given a farm by a relative and tasked with meeting the residents, amassing a fortune and (of course) growing crops and raising animals. That's really not the whole of it, though.
Stardew Valley offers quite a bit of exploration, combat (while in the deep mines — I've only made it down to level 65) and supernatural mystery to boot, with a haunted community center, the aforementioned wizard and some weird totems scattered around town. There are holiday festivals for each major season change too. Taking it on the go is even better; I've whiled away plenty of time, while waiting for my kid to finish a piano lesson, harvesting blueberries and fighting off slimes in the mines. Overall, Stardew Valley is a charming title with a ton of things to do; you won't get bored if you enjoy the gentle Zen of growing crops and exploring your little corner of the world.
Super Beat Sports
Timothy J. Seppala Associate Editor
Like many others, I got my first exposure to Harmonix's work through Guitar Hero 2. But outside of The Beatles: Rock Band, I didn't spend a ton of time with the studio's band-simulator franchise. Usually I didn't have friends around to play it with, and lugging out a plastic drum set for a quick song was always a pain. I've loved the studio's one-off games like Rock Band Unplugged for PSP and Rock Band Blitz for consoles, though, because they took what I loved about the full-on games — awesome licensed music and beat-matching gameplay that was second to none — and stripped away the bulky plastic instruments. Imagine my surprise when I fired up the team's Nintendo Switch effort Super Beat Sports and discovered it was basically a portable Rock Band in disguise.
I'm talking specifically about the "Whacky Bat" mini game. On the surface, it looks like a simple batting practice exercise, with adorable pink monsters hurling baseballs at you in time with music. You have to knock them back from whence they came, using audio cues to get the timing right. It all seemed a little familiar, but I couldn't figure out why. After a few rounds of this, I unlocked "Pro Mode," which had me facing down multiple monster pitchers across five lanes, swapping between each. That's when it hit me: This was basically one of the pared-back Rock Band games on my Switch.
The balls are the note gems; each pitcher's lane is the note highway; and swinging my hockey stick (it makes sense in the game) to the beat, keeping a streak going, is nailing a full combo on a plastic instrument. Of course, there are other mini-games ("Net Ball," a take on volleyball, and "Gobble Golf" are great as well) and deeper multiplayer offerings, but none of them grabbed me quite like "Whacky Bat."
Super Mario Odyssey is one of the best games I've played in years, sure, but I'd rather experience that at home on my TV with surround sound. If I'm on the go, you can bet I'm playing Super Beat Sports.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp
Aaron Souppouris Features Editor
On first impression, I was as entranced by Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp as I was by New Leaf on the 3DS. Just as Fire Emblem Heroes is exactly what I want from a mobile Fire Emblem game, Pocket Camp seemed to be the perfect distillation of what makes the series so special. You shuffle around, solving various animals' problems (mostly by gathering fruit, bugs or fish), and in return you get materials to add furniture to your campsite and camper. Pick the right objects and animals will come visit your camp, making space for more characters to appear around the game's small world. It's a nice loop that works great on mobile.
After a week or so, though, I felt like I was running out of things to do. The NPCs were giving me similar lines of dialogue, and the challenges were all the same. Perhaps that's by design. A lot of the game seems to hinge around real people — you can make friends with people you know and don't, and then team up to complete challenges or wander around their campsite looking at how they've chosen to decorate it. Because I played the game on a throwaway account, I've been unable to add any people I actually know to the game, and the world Nintendo has crafted began to feel oddly dull and lifeless.
This isn't really Nintendo's fault. I jumped through hoops to download Pocket Camp early, essentially lying to my iPhone until it believed I was living in the Sydney Opera House. I'm cautiously optimistic that when the game is released worldwide later this month, I'll find more to do, because I'll be playing with friends.
The other lingering question is about the payment structure. Pocket Camp is free to play, and the gifts that Nintendo gives away to new players dry up very quickly. Doing anything after a week seemed to take forever unless I paid to speed things up. Fire Emblem Heroes mostly strikes a good balance here, providing enough hooks for big spenders to keep spending while ensuring that you could choose never to part with real money and still have fun. That equilibrium doesn't seem to be there for Pocket Camp.
This is definitely Animal Crossing; it's just not very good right now. But even with these pre-launch issues, I'm still hopeful. The monthly updates to Fire Emblem Heroes over the past eight months have consistently improved it, and if Nintendo pays that much attention to Pocket Camp, it could grow into a great game.
"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.