They say love is a many splendored thing. At least in America they do. Being a geek, one’s education is simply incomplete without a working knowledge of Japanese pop culture, but sometimes ignorance really is bliss. If we’re judging from film, anime, and video games, Japan may be god-tier in the realms of technology, sublime absurdity, and overpowered final forms but they’ve got a lot to learn about love. Or perhaps we have a lot to learn from them…
Being the (virtually) well-traveled RPG gamer I am, I eventually happened upon Record of Agarest War 2, the PlayStation-exclusive sequel to a game I very much enjoyed. The premise of the series is that you play as a hero who has to choose a waifu from among his destined female adventuring companions -known as “maidens of the pillar”- to bear his child so that they can continue his quest to resurrect a god when they come of age. It’s a pretty great concept, mixing interactive virtual romance with traditional fantasy RPGing over the course of multiple lifetimes. But it’d be even greater if it hadn’t sprung from a culture where romance only has two primary flavors: pristine blushing abstinence and hardcore tentacle rape.
Agarest 2 toes that line as much as it can to keep that T rating, but on occasion, the attempt to have their lolita-complex cake and eat it too swings wildly between genuine sweetness and blatant obscenity. It’s an uncomfortable and clumsy mixture that occasionally ends up more awkward and gross than if they’d just decided to go full Hot Coffee. But still, you learn what you can where you can and I’m always determined to take something away from each and every experience. Here are five things I took away from my time with Record of Agarest War 2.
One of the game’s functions is “affection levels”, which presumes to measure how each character feels about you and display it in emoticon form. Like most things in this game, it’s a solid concept executed rather clumsily. A character treats you pretty much the same regardless of how they feel about you, trying to kill you while their status indicated they are gaga for you, or being really friendly and pleasant while they supposedly can’t stand the sight of your face. There’s also an obscure team-rating system that rates your party based on affection levels, but the only real reason it matters is wooing your waifu of choice for a stronger child and access to special scenes (we’ll open that can of worms later).
Affection is most notably increased by dialogue choices or by one of the worst minigames ever devised (again: later) but in an odd choice by the developers, you can also slowly increase it by keeping the desired character in your party. It’s kind of dumb because with at least three maidens per generation and only four slots in your battle party, it’s pretty obvious what your party needs to be to maximize affection levels where they count and pursue that insanely elusive “true ending”. So you’ve got this massive bunch of warriors to choose from, but to get done what you need to get done to get the best ending you need to roll with all three maidens in your party whenever possible (which is just about always), leading to the term “grinding for affection”. I prefer the Darling Nikki approach myself.
After some 30 hours spent in a single generation attaining the love of three beautiful women, you get to choose your bride from among them. This is the game’s coolest feature. I really hope some better series steals it sometime. Getting through the adventure learning about the ladies in question and deciding which one you like the best is great fun as all of the choices have their own distinct manners of charm and beauty. But aside from choosing for your hero and yourself, you are also begetting a new generation of hero through your offspring.
Typically, the ladies fall into the tank/rogue/mage categories and you are allowed to cheat by viewing compatibility fortunes at the alchemist’s shop to get a sneak peak at what each choice will look like. So deciding what build you want next time around factors into who you pick as well. So far, so good. But what happens when you’re torn between cold, unfeeling gamer pragmatism and the feelings of your geek heart? Tragedy! That’s what.
The first generation I was torn between the dutiful and beautiful valkyrie princess Victoria and the felicitous feline guardian Felenne. With Felenne starting off intending to kill the protagonist, Weiss, and having the most captivating eyes, I thought it would make a great arc for them to end up together. But along comes Victoria with all of her regal elegance and brilliant genetics. Our child would be an azure-haired BEAST of a tank compared to Felenne’s merely-serviceable speed boost for her mediocre spawn. Sorry, catlady. Perhaps in another playthrough.
The second generation really came down to the wire between the angelic winged goddess Yumil and the gun-toting tsundere vixen Vanessa. Nessie looks like a bad girl Tifa Lockheart, which is acres of win, but dem wings! With Yumi-chan, I could have a winged warrior for a child! How cool is that? Plus, she’s sweet as sugar so no downside. Yet somehow, Vanessa’s son would be statistically better in nearly every area than hers. It made no sense as Yumil was a monster tank while Vanessa served as squad leader thanks to her speed advantage, yet my choice for the next generation was pretty much negated when I saw the stats. The game made the choice for me. I really wanted a hawkman to lead the final gen, but how could I pass up guaranteed genetic superiority in a RPG? You beat yourself again, Agarest 2.
Now, about those cutscenes…did I mention this is somehow rated T? In addition to some pretty robust character development amongst your party members and NPC’s in each generation, once you achieve certain objectives such as high affection levels, you get some sexually-tinged sequences as a reward (?). I’m not knocking this as a concept because I’ve been known to enjoy a little sexiness in my life both in-game and out, but I guess I’m still a prude by some standards because some of this stuff is just plain icky. Maybe it’s the shameful lack of exposure to internet fetish videos in my upbringing, but I’m not a guy who considers a woman crawling through “sticky white goo” arousing. And a sheep licking a girl’s hindquarters while she’s stuck in a fence moaning and squealing? Nope. Nothing here but a profound and fatherly sense of disappointment in the developers. Blame my terrible upbringing, I guess.
And then there’s Agarest 2‘s resident darling Fiona. She’s a nigh-immortal elf present from the beginning as a child frozen in time ages ago and then awakened, which is to say technically legal……very technically. Fun fact: European versions of this game were censored due to the fact that Fiona is shown in some pretty compromising positions even before she non-technically comes of age in the game. I’d estimate her visual age for most of the game to be around 11 or 12 so you can see why this may be a problem for some of us. Most of us. Loli girls are an alarmingly typical trope in anime we’ve mostly chosen to ignore because Japan, but normally they aren’t fellating a banana with another girl moaning about how big it is either. That’s the exact definition of “too much, too soon”. You really couldn’t wait until the final gen, guys?
A lot of this is made even ickier by what brought me back to the series; the enhanced visual novel format. Low-budget Japanese games typically use sequences of various static images and voice acting to tell stories in favor of the uber-expensive full-motion cutscenes that populate AAA games. It’s a solid trade-off, and this game upgraded the format to include some animations like breathing character models and other little features to make the characters more lifelike. The characters and their breasts, that is. A lot of ladies who nod and shrug with their bosoms in this game. And that banana scene up there, yeah that one is animated too for maximum cringe. Why must you pervert all of your best features, Agarest 2?
Mini-game time! We love mingames! Blitzball and Chocobo races! Card games! Wii Sports and Mario Party! Who doesn’t love a good minigame? Well, how about if it was some awful thing that made no sense where you had to keep a woman’s bathwater at a proper temperature by spazzing out the control stick for minutes on end to make her like you more? How does that even work? Say what you want about the ick-factor of the massage minigame, but at least it makes sense. Massages are sexy and they make us feel good. I don’t know that they’d permanently increase our stats all that much, but what the hell; I’m an RPGer and I don’t argue against stat increases as a general rule.
But then we get to the third perverted minigame, the shiatsu. I looked up shiatsu to make sure this was a thing, and it says it’s all about pressure points, stretches, and the like. So why the fuck am I slathering decidedly phallic foods on my potential mate? It says I’m increasing her AP and CP, which let you do more stuff, and break rating. I’ve heard that some folk get turned on by food, but I had no idea it could make you better at life too.
I went ahead and did the awful bath thing for the affection boosts, although I think I may have permanently damaged my hand (not like that), and the massage deal wasn’t so bad even though the game is in Japanese so I had no idea what the girls were squealing at me as I digitally fondled them, but I really had to draw the line at rubbing bananas, sausages, dildo mushrooms, and goddamn ham hocks on my party members to cover their bodies in grease and juices for incremental boosts. I reject that gameplay feature. And yes, young Fiona is available for these….except in Europe. This bizarre food fetish stuff surfaces repeatedly throughout each generation in the game. Somebody must be into it, but I don’t really rate on that scale. They can have it.
To be honest, I kind of enjoyed this game. As ass-backwards as it is at times and as maddeningly inscrutable and downright unfriendly to its players as it can be, it’s a defiantly hardcore RPG in a casual world and I respect that, pedo-pandering or no pedo-pandering. And hey, a lot of the characters are genuinely charming. As long as you don’t mind that the main heroes aren’t among them, that’s a plus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more unlovable trio of protagonists in any three games put together. And you can throw in your ever-present guide Eva too to make it an even four. But if we’re being honest, real life success seems to rain down primarily on such people. It just took a ridiculous fantasy RPG to help point it out to me.
The first generation’s hero, Weiss, is introduced slaying a god for I can’t remember what reason. HE doesn’t even remember. The guy’s not a bastard, but he is quite literally the most soulless, bland thing I’ve ever seen on my television screen. And I’ve seen Kanye West sing. His son Schwarz (insert Spaceballs joke here) is anther problem altogether; that guy makes you want to punch him in the face in his very first appearance. Knowing his fate is to mate with a maiden of the pillars and packing enough daddy issues to fuel the nu-metal scene for decades, he declares “The only reason I agreed to take on that son of a bitch’s mission is so I can get my hands on those whores.” Wow. Just……wow. The final generation’s hero Grey isn’t all that boring or bastardly, but he looks and acts like he just stepped off of the grittiest street in Westeros. I have to wonder what kind of surrogate mother/sister Fiona is that these kids turn out so messed up on her watch? Must be all the banana sex.
The funny thing about Agarest 2 is after all of the perverse scenes, questionable minigames, and Schwartz’s repeated indications that he prefers his sex non-consensual, the marriage/consumation scenes that end each generation are actually really touching and sweet. And each time all I could think was “this guy so does not deserve her”. Sure, that’s kind of like real life, but is it too much to ask to play as a fictional hero with a little personality when these wonderful girls are all supposed to fall for him if only to give us nerds some ill-gotten vicarious hope?
The ironic thing about this game that is so aggressively targeted at men is that nearly all the female characters are these great, fleshed-out, badass, charming people and the men are almost uniformly shitty and/or bland. As far as I can see, this is a world that should be a sapphic paradise populated primarily by great Amazonian societies while the male barbarians live in huts in the woods and leer from afar, having been banished from civilization. Maybe Agarest 3 will get it right. Or maybe they’ll add a bukake minigame instead and you’ll have to shake the controller furiously to increase your heroine’s debuff resistance. Time will tell.