The title comes from Sunless Sea, an adventure game where the player explore the dark sea of unknown. However, it has nothing to do with that game.
The translation of Japaneses words are done with best effort, in another word, there is no any kind of guarantee that the translation is official or consistent with the official one.
This article contains spoilers, which may harm or even completely ruin your experiences, here’s a non-exhaustive list: Hikari no Umi no Apeiria(Apeiria of the Sea of Landscape) Steins;Gate Eiyuu Densetsu Sen no Kiseki(Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel) Planetarian ~ Chiisana Hoshi no Yume Newton to Ringo no Ki(Newton and the Apple Tree) Eden *(spoiler: it is not spoiled)
Progress with heed.
This post does not contain what you’d expect from a typical game review – the overall plot, the execution, the voice casts and so on, because it is kinda lame to write something that is already on the Internet, especially for a year-old game like Apeiria(although I myself is the reason why this post is delayed for half a year).
So instead, the post focuses on elements and ideas, either central or peripheral to the game, and expands these concepts further. This strategy makes the post a little out of focus, and here’s another reason for it: the game is in a sense mediocre, because it does not exceeds one’s expectation.
I don’t mean the game is bad. On the contrary, Apeiria is a good combination of popular concepts and has a capturing story. After all, if the game is really not good enough, I wouldn’t even bother to post an article about it, let alone go through iterations in this six months. The point is, however great the game is, Apeiria is just a galgame, nothing more, nothing less.
It is hard to define what makes an art piece unique, but for a game, drawing moustache on character’s face and claiming the originality would be unique for the blatant copyright infringement. For a game, it could have great arts and music, humanly characters, a catching plot, or a thought-provoking theme. Kikiyama’s free game Yume Nikki(Dream Diary), for example, features exploring exotic scenes with an unrealistic art style, whereas The Last of Us, an action game by Naughty Dogs, portrays humanity in a postapocalyptic world. And that’s one of the reasons why they receive acclaims from the fans.
That being said, people’s mileages can greatly vary, and there’s no universal standard for good or bad games. So this post is not about judging whether a game is good or not, but just a peek into the core of the game.
No Sense Online
Note: it comes from Only Sense Online, an online lightnovel by Aroha Zachou(literally Chairman Aloha) later published in print. AFAIK this lightnovel does not feature OreTueee.
The story of Apeiria happens in 2035, and people profit from the highly developed VR technology and AI research. Reiichi Kirishima, works together with his friends to build the VRMMORPG Second. The second is a fantasy world of sword and magic. One may suspect fantasy makes up most of the game, just as Reki Kawahara’s lightnovel Sword Art Online, and most online novels do. However, the story puts emphasis on both the real world and the virtual one. But the best part is, the two seemingly contradicting themes are tactfully merged in the end of the game.
Back to the fantasy world. Usually to make a party, we need members of these sorts:
- Short- and/or mid-range attackers. They are usually deployed to defend the party members behind. Examples are thieves, swordsmans, lancers, and fighters. There should better be a tank to take the damage.
- Long-range attackers or scouts. They can discover enemies early, leaving enough time for preparation. Their attacks won’t be countered by short-range enemies. Archers, for example, belong to this category.
- Mages. If physical attack and magical attack are largely different in ways of effects and costs, then mages are needed to ensure a more comprehensive scope of attack.
- Healers or supporters. Their importance is never overemphasized.
Take Falcom’s Legend of Heroes: Trails of the Cold Steel I as a motivating example, we have:
- Short-/mid-range: Rean(tachi), Laura(double-handed sword), Fie(dagger/gun), Jusis(knight sword), Gaius(spear)
- Long-range: Alisa(bow), Machias(shotgun), Eliot(staff), Emma(staff)
- Mages: Emma, Eliot
- Healer: Eliot, Emma
In this game everyone is able to use arts(what magic is called in this game), therefore the main difference between mages and others is that mages have higher magic attack/defence stats. So Eliot and Emma are not required as mages(though they are required as healers).
Trails of the Cold Steel allows only four characters in the battle, with two substitute members, there are at most 6 members in the party most of the time. Let’s see how Falcom arranges the party in each chapter to make sure it is balanced:
- Rean(S), Alisa(L), Eliot(H), Laura(S)
- Rean(S), Emma(H), Fie(S), Machias(L), Jusis(S)
- Rean(S), Gaius(S), Jusis(S), Alisa(L), Emma(H)
- Rean(S), Laura(S), Fie(S), Machias(L), Eliot(H)
- Rean(S), Laura(S), Jusis(S), Emma(H), Millium(S)
- Rean(S), Alisa(L), Eliot(S), Machias(L), Fie(S), Crow(S)
Though there’s another system restricting the selection of members: there are four types of normal attack damage: slash, pierce, thrust, strike. Normal attacks from different characters have varied affinities to these types. For instance, Rean’s tachi attack has a high slash affinity, while Laura’s affinity to both slash and strike is high. And different enemies can be easily unbalanced by different types of attack damages. So the damage throughput could be increased by using the right person to attack the enemies, leading to more unbalancing and link attacks. Though the system is marginal since the bosses can hardly be unbalanced(they don’t have this kind of weak point), the affinities of the characters are carefully arranged to make sure all four types are covered in the above party setups.
However, in Apeiria, we see an unprecedented bias of party member roles. The constitution of the party is like this:
- Reiichi: short/mid-range attacker, main damage output, can revive himself and buff teammates
- Miu: sniper and healer. So roughly speaking, she’s Ana from Overwatch, while being a tsundere younger sister.
- Kuon: swordswoman, tank(she have a spell to call out an inpenetrable shield)
- Mashiro: thief, able to exchange money for rare items
- Apeiria: mage, persumably a DPS(second to Reiichi), unavailable most of the times.
As we can see Reiichi is ridiculously overpowered – he himself is a whole team. I guess it is probably due to the story. If my memory serves me right, the party is like the following in different times:
- Reiichi, Miu, Kuon, Mashiro, Apeiria
- Reiichi, Miu
- Reiichi, Kuon
- Reiichi, Mashiro
- Reiichi, Miu, Kuon, Mashiro
Nanami and whatever are taking up much less a role, so they aren’t counted. Discussion about them can be left to the post about the game’s spinoff Casablanca no Kishi(Knights of Casablanca), if there is one.
Given this plot requirement, the usual party makeup does not make any sense, because Reiichi will have no chance of survival, turning the Second into souls-like games, and Apeiria into Re:zero. Powering up the heroines could be a good idea, but that will render the last fight, a one-on-one fight with the last boss unimpressive.
This kind of unbalanced protagonist is mushrooming in lightnovels these years. With the uprise of coarse grained net novels, the use of such template is hitting new high. Let’s yell out some of the catch phrases:
Shuujinkou saikyou(protagonist the mightiest)!
Ore tueeee(I’m so stroooong)!
Such settings bring about some benefits. One of them is that the story can always be kept under control. There’s no need for ex machina, because the overpowered protagonist themself is the ex machina. Another is that a group of readers are usually happy about it. Admittedly I was one of them.
Apeiria of Love and Desire
Note: it comes from Aiyoku no Eustia. Ai means tarnish rather than love, while yoku means wings instead of desire.
In August’s visual novel Aiyoku no Eustia, we have multiple routes, from Ellis the pharmacist to Eustia, the main heroine in the story. Unlike other galgames, in Eustia, the common route does not branch to personal routes at the same time. It first has a branch off to Ellis’ route, then Fione’s, on and on, and in the end Eustia’s. Such a structure allows huge savings, since one thing in one route needn’t be reintroduced in another. Moreover, it makes all routes sequentially related, so the player can regard the story as a well-structured whole, rather than 5 separate ones.
Another visual novel created by Laplacian, Newton and the Apple Tree, has the same flow of story. However, the game forces the player to go into Ravi’s route once before progressing to the Japanese, the maid, and Alice.
However, it is not as simple as spreading out to personal routes sequentially. There should be key events to set the backgrounds of the personal routes apart. In Nitroplus’ adventure (text) game Steins;Gate, the D-mail is the key. If Rintarou sends the D-mail to Firis, the whole landscape of Akihabara will not be the heaven of otakus, but still a street of electronics. Therefore, the common route before and after this branch into Ferris’ route differs significantly.
Apeiria is also a galgame that has such a structure. However, it integrates all routes into one. As a side-effect, choices are eliminated, and we have a truly linear storyline. But here comes the problem: how can we avoid conflicts of different routes? Even we can manipulate the protagonist’s feelings for the heroines, we cannot simply take things in the previous route as unhappened.
To resolve the conflict, Silky’s Plus Dolce resorts to the good old time leap: if we can revert to the time before the personal route begins, then everything works perfectly. Therefore, in the end of routes the protag leaps to one year before the current time, losing almost all his memories, including the ones with the heroine.
However, there is no elixir, and the seemingly powerful time traveling has its side-effects, that is the time paradox. In Steins;Gate, to avoid the time paradox being happening, Rintarou has to stab Kurisu while avoiding bumping into his past self, when he goes back in time to save Kurisu. Sorry, but my poor wording makes it sounds a little silly.
Apeiria goes further than that: rather than not touching the paradox, it provides a new theory to get over it. The theory states it is not the case what one does now has no impact on the past. When we travel to the past, the future is not undone: it affects now so that everythin will converge to what has happened in the future.
Like this one, there are many theories presented in Apeiria about time, causality and so on. Just like the Koujin Nanase part of manga Kyokou Suiri(In/Spectre), although every theory, in itself, is unsound, it has its reasonable parts. And in the showdown, all rational parts are combined to make the final, sound theory.
Mechanic Princess in the Dying World
Note: it comes from the light novel Kakeyuku Toshi no Kikai Tsukihime, wherein a robot girl meets her end.
Everyone knows an awful lot about the greatness of AI, but much less about its correct use. Fortunately, we have Silky’s Plus Dolce to point out the right way: to make one’s own girlfriends.
It is a reiterated theme - there are already works about having android girls or something like that as protagonists or heroines. In manga Mahoromatic, the main heroine Mahoro is a female android, previously soldier, who comes to Misato’s house after knowing she has only a year left. Visual Arts Key’s visual novel Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet features Yumemi Hoshino, a female robot narrator in a discarded planetarium. In the anime series Plastic Memories, we have android Isla(Aira) working with Tsukasa, the protagonist, to retrieve androids that are near the end of their life.
It seems not really good – they nurtured a stereotype about androids and robots – they are powerful but vunerable, they have short lifespan, they have difficulties understand human emotions, so on and so forth.
And the real bad thing is that Apeiria, one of the main heroine, and the center of the whole story, does not at all fall out of these stereotypes.
- Power: she hacks tens of billions of computers around the world to make her Apeiria Network.
- Vulnerability: she has not once successfully repelled Thinker’s virus attack. And when the Apeiria Network is hacked, she cannot disconnect herself from the network to avoid being disabled.
- Short lifespan: near her own route, she has only one year to live(it’s Mahoro!)
Note: it comes from the movie Inception, maybe.
Tired and bored after a day’s work, we may want to escape the real world, and embrace a virtual one. So one may imagine a switch mechanism for it: switch on, and we’re in the realm of imagination, and off, back to the real world.
But such a kind of mechanism overlooks the interplay of this two worlds. Usually one playing a game is aware of its virtual nature, and is not separated from the outside. Take Ready Player One for example, control of the character in game is also affected by the lost of balance in the real world. So the virtual world can be greatly influenced by the real world, but it is often not the same the way around.
With this asymmetry taken into consideration, a layered structure seems better to express this kind of relationship. Here we adopt the idea of a stack. The virtual domain is on the top, while the reality is in the bottom. The virtual world dominates our feelings when present, but we fall back to earth upon exiting the imaginary.
So the reality-virtuality dichotomy can be expressed by a stack of size 2, let’s call it world stack from now. The real world is the first element of the world stack, and also the only element if we’re in reality. But if we dive into the virtual world, like OASIS, then we push the game onto the stack, and there’s two elements: the virtual world on top of the real world.
And it is easy to extend the world stack to allow more than 2 elements.
In a chapter of Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Achilles and the tortoise travels in and out Escher’s works by drinking blue and red phials. The travelling is done in a similar manner: going deeper into prints is like the push an item onto the stack, while going out out of the piece of artwork is like popping elements of the stack. And the world we are directly feeling is the top element of the stack.
Though it bears resemblance to the stack data structure, the world stack has a definitive difference: we do not know how many elements are in the stack at any time. So here’s the problem: how can we know if the top element of the world stack is the real world? In other words, how can we tell if the world we’re right in real or not?
We can check this by popping out elements, if there’s nothing to pop, then the world stack is empty, and the last world we popped is the real one. But note that popping out real world usually means one’s death. One never knows if the red pill is authentic before he washes it down. So we do not know if the current world we’re living is real, the only thing we know is since the real world is at the bottom, if we find out the current world is virtual, we can always pop out of it without getting ourselves killed.
But the safety to pop out does not mean it is doable. For example, it is claimed that people in heaven never dies. So people are not able to access the world beyond heaven, just like the girls cannot come out of the screen.
To solve this problem, Apeiria introduces a world structure similar to the stack model, but is different in its essence. In the game, the top and the bottom of the stack are connected, therefore the way in becomes the way out.
Apeiria is a interesting combination of popular topics – AI, virtual reality – on the good old basis of Sci-Fi and fantasy. Unlike in Sword Art Online, where one is constant aware the world’s nature, Apeiria weaves a story across the borderline of reality and fantasy, which makes it capturing and different.