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Fried Take - "Lux-Pain" (2008)

Whenever a list of my favorite Nintendo DS games comes up, a laundry list of Japanese titles floods to my mind. And can you blame me? The era during which the DS reigned supreme was a time when it was commonplace to bring over weird, niche Japanese games and flood the marketplace with them. Nowadays, if your game isn't a guaranteed hit of some sorts, or at least a hit with a certain audience, it's staying wherever it came from, if it even gets made at all. Even games pitched squarely to the anime audience have common trends between them. Times have changed, for sure.

But back in the day, seven or so years ago, we were still getting a lot of odd little curios from the Land of the Rising Sun. And so, whenever I think back on my favorite DS games from that halcyon era, one title immediately rushes to my mind along with other faves, like The World Ends With You or the Ace Attorney series: Lux-Pain, a bizarre visual novel from the now-defunct Ignition Entertainment.

A little background on Ignition Entertainment seems like a wise idea before jumping in. Why? Because they were one of the most interesting gaming companies of the mid-to-late 2000's. Maybe that's just because they released some games that I personally really liked. Deadly Premonition, El Shaddai, Muramasa, Obscure: The Aftermath and Metal Slug 7 all came out of this company, on top of Lux-Pain, of course. That's not to mention other titles like the big-name Blue Dragon + and overlooked RPGs like Arc Rise Fantasia and Nostalgia. How did they get the licenses for and crank out these overall solid titles, some of which couldn't have been cheap to get a hold of? Short answer: Bollywood.

Ignition Entertainment, initially a small British company, was absorbed by Indian media giant UTV, who happened to now be owned by The Walt Disney Company. UTV is still around, primarily known for their Bollywood movies, which I only know because they used to come to my local movie theater when I was living in Atlanta. They're a big name in India, cranking out a ton of movies and owning a handful of TV stations; they've even helped produce a few Hollywood flicks. In short, they've got several constant sources of income. Through this, Ignition was able to get a hold of a ton of licenses, big and small, and put them onto North American shelves. Only... well, as a video game company, they kind of sucked. 

None of their games sold particularly well, even ones with established names backing them up. On top of this, the owner of the US division of the company, Paul Steed, was accused of both sexual harassment and mis-managing company funds. Steed was a famous figure in the industry at one point, and did a lot of notable work for big brands. Even his industry expertise couldn't save the sinking ship that was Ignition, though. The company's dwindling sales coupled with allegations of Steed's unprofessional behavior all culminated in Steed's untimely death in 2012. To this day, the cause of death was never made public, but some people who knew Steed have since confirmed it was suicide. Sad story, all around, and a pretty grisly end to what once seemed like a promising company.

Perhaps it's suitably dark and twisted, though, because that's the overall tone of Lux-Pain: dark and dreary.

No, really, I promise.
While the promotional art might give an air of lighthearted, teenage hi-jinks, Lux-Pain has an insanely bleak narrative, one that has a particularly bleak view of society. But don't just take it from me. The creator, Takeo Higashino, has gone on record to state that his inspirations behind the game include group suicide, cyberbullying, and violence towards animals. Yeesh.

Thing is? All of that, and more, shows up in Lux-Pain in some capacity during the course of the narrative... yet it doesn't come across as some grimdark, edgy trash for the Hot Topic tween set. It's all weaved naturally into the core narrative and never feels forced or artificial. And it helps that that core narrative is really, really good. Players take the role of Atsuko Saijo, who works for a mysterious organization that eradicates a strange virus that feeds off human despair and drives its hosts to acts of extreme violence and/or self-harm. But in order to blend in where the virus is strongest at the moment, he needs to enroll in high school and try to have a normal day-to-day life as a teenager.

Does this sound relatively familiar? Almost like Persona 3, albeit with some of the plot elements being switched about? Because that's pretty much what Lux-Pain is: a darker Persona game without the RPG elements. Most of what you'll be doing consists of scrolling through dialogue and making decisions that affect said dialogue. Building friendships through dialogue and saving lives behind the scenes through touch screen-based segments is pretty much the order of the day here, and if that's not your thing, well, play something else. Why are you even reading this?

That latter gameplay element, the one that involves touch screens, is the only real "gameplay" in Lux-Pain. Outside of choosing where and how to spend your time, and how to spend it with, Saijo will often be tasked with trying to eradicate the despair virus. How? Simple: surgery mini-games. Yep, you read that right. If you're familiar with the Trauma Center series (or the obscure Lifesigns: Surgical Unit, for that matter,) then you have a basic idea of how this works, to an extent. Even though it's much simpler than other games in that vein, it's the same gist. Players will scan other characters and sometimes the environment, then try to excise the despair, which manifest as worm-like things. Does it make sense? No, not one bit, but hey, that's just the direction they wanted to take it, I guess. It's pretty neat and, uh, interesting, either way.

"Neat and, uh, interesting." - The Fried Critic
Honestly, I'm about as enthusiastic for the mechanics as I sound. Like, they work, and they're inoffensive, but they're definitely not the reason to get Lux-Pain. You're playing this for the visual novel aspects more than anything else. If you're expected complicated, nuanced gameplay here, you'd best look elsewhere. Yeah, the director said that most of the game was hunting down Shinen (the despair worms,) but that's a bit of a lie. In the end, it's one of those "look at pictures and read the story"-type experiences.  But damn, is it ever a good example of that sort of thing. Except... well...

The translation. The translation is actual garbage. Things are misspelled and awkwardly phrased constantly and consistently. Voice acting rarely, if ever, matches up with the dialogue on the screen, most likely because the English VAs knew it sounded awful. Lux-Pain has an excellent narrative with engaging characters, yet it's constantly at odds with a translation that tries to make the story incomprehensible and the characters difficult to read. It's what led to the game being widely panned by critics, and one of the many reasons it's gotten lost in the annals of video game history. On top of, you know, being a niche anime fan game on a system packed to the brim with them.

Is it fair to give a game a three out of ten because of a bad translation though? Or because you're a bit too lamebrained to understand the story? No, no, I don't think so. Lux-Pain has a great narrative that makes perfect sense if you actually bother to pay attention and give thought to it. Yes, it's pretty awful that the translation is so slipshod (rumors point to it being either done by UTV in India or in-house at Marvelous in Japan,) and they charged full-price for the game in America. I'm not trying to excuse that entirely. But I also feel that it doesn't completely invalidate how much the story is able to pull you in and make you care.

And that, I feel, is Lux-Pain's biggest strength, and why I still remember it, six years later, out of the dozens (if not hundreds) of games I've played since. The world, the characters, the concept... all of it works together to produce an interesting little curio of a game that has stood out, over time, as one of my favorite narratives in gaming. It's unfortunate that the sales were dismal (even worse in Japan, if you can believe that,) because that, combined with a few other failures, led to the developer shutting doors a year or two later. Consequently, any hopes of revisiting the weird, dreary, typo-filled world of Lux-Pain are pretty much dead in the water. I mean, weirder things have happened, of course, but I wouldn't imagine chances are very high.

As it stands, though, Lux-Pain is a standalone narrative that's one of the best on the market. It's criminally overlooked and can be had for dirt-cheap these days. You'd be remiss to skip over this one, especially if you're a lover of visual novels and/or ruminations on what makes society tick.

Even if the translation can't ever tell if the characters are in Japan or America.

Nobody's hair looks this great in America.


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