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Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery
Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery

Apr 07

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow

Mar 24

Castlevania Legends
Castlevania Legends

Mar 16

Castlevania Advance Collection
Castlevania Advance Collection

Mar 03

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Mar 03

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Sunny-side-up eggs and toast. A warm cup of coffee. Relaxing piano music. An easel and a canvas. What better way to enjoy a morning?

Behind the Frame invites its player to revel in that tranquil scenery. It tells the story of a young painter who's trying her best to enter an art exhibition in New York and, on an afternoon that would have been spent with the easel, ends up learning more about an old neighbor who doesn't interact with other people much. As a short narrative-focused game, it's better not to go any deeper into the story in a review: suffice to say, it's a touching and easy to relate to story about being true to oneself and one's feelings.

Much like Tangle Tower, another 2D hand-animated point-n-click on Steam, Behind the Frame immediately distinguishes itself through its immaculate vibes: the Ghibli-inspired characters and animation, gorgeous environments and emotional tunes are highly effective in setting the mood to our lovable artist's surreal adventure. The similarities end there, however, as Behind the Frame is much more focused on its narrative than anything else.

The game is strictly linear, with six chapters composed of events that unfold in sequence -- not unexpected from a narrative game, but the particular choice of mechanics here does end up giving off this distinct feeling of being constrained. It's also far lighter on puzzles, which, bar the ones at the tail end of the game, are solvable within seconds. This makes the package less attractive for its brainteasers, and more of a game to unwind to on a lazy evening. On that front, it makes a very compelling case for itself.

This is the first original IP from Akatsuki Taiwan, and it does leave a good impression along with the lingering question on whether they'll make more original games like this.

A fun side effect of writing about games, even on an amateur level, is that one ends up reflecting and researching on games a bit deeper and thus getting to know more about them than if they just hop from game to game. I originally planned to open this review by talking about the early days of the DS and PSP, how despite the DS being the best selling (and arguably best) portable in history, the two portables being presented in 2004 left audiences puzzled as to what Nintendo was thinking, and why anyone would want that quirky thing instead of the much slicker PSP. That's because I believed that to be the cause for Konami opting to play it safe and make the first DS Castlevania a sequel -- an assumption which proved incorrect.

No, Iga was pretty much sold on the DS from the start, and Aria of Sorrow's great sales on a Nintendo platform sealed the deal on the DS as the host for the next portable entry in the Castlevania series. As for why make a direct sequel, in particular, that is owed to Iga knowing that he and his team had accomplished something special with Aria, both in terms of storyline and gameplay. Iga truly loves the soul system from that game, and that would become even more evident years later, with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but I digress.

As a direct sequel to Aria, Dawn of Sorrow might get criticised for being a rethreading of known ground, but the fact of the matter is, it's rethreading some damn solid ground. Most of what I mention in my Aria of Sorrow review applies to its sequel as well, from the robust gameplay systems to the beautiful sprite art. There are some areas in which Dawn attempts to stand out from its prequel, some of which are successful, some of which, not so much.

Immediately apparent from the cover of the game is that the art style for character art was changed, moving away from Ayami Kojima's (gorgeous) character portraits to... somewhat generic anime art. This change is said to be a result of demographics, with portable gamers being mainly children and, as such, it making sense to use character art that appealed more to that age group. Unfortunately, none of us happened to be in the room when that decision was taken to loudly point out that Aria was a success among that very demographic and that aging down the brand identity so suddenly might be a bad idea, so this is what we got stuck with.

It's not that the character art is terrible -- it reminds me of Rondo, which also used anime art and is still widely beloved by the fanbase -- but Dawn is trying to tell a story from a handicapped position and nailing the gothic horror vibes right from the cover would have helped its case by a lot. See, the position of a sequel to a work that was never written in a way to have one is a difficult one: the big twists have already happened and characters have experienced their respective growths, so what do we work with to make a new story?

(Incidentally, Dawn opens by spoiling the big twist in Aria, so absolutely play Aria first if you can.)

What immediately springs to mind are those Disney direct-to-VHS sequels that were mostly pretty forgettable, when not antithetical to the original work, as that's absolutely the vibe one gets when one mischievous gang of troublemakers shows up in the opening in Dawn to oppose Soma and his crew. The generic cartoon aesthetic makes for a poor first impression even though the storyline is actually quite competent and, for a game ostensibly marketed at children, it shows some rather dark imagery.

The idea is that, with Dracula being forever gone, a cult forms from people that desire a new Dark Lord, and a few of its head figures step forward as candidates to fill the power vacuula. They decide to have a go at Soma, attacking him and his girlfriend when the two are hanging out in town, and our boy doesn't take too kindly to that, setting out in pursuit of the group, pulling the whole crew from Aria in with him. What follows is a metroidvania romp just like Aria, which has Soma claiming monsters' souls as he brings down the Dark Lord wannabes.

Where Dawn successfully improves on Aria is in quality of life features as well as better tuning. On the former front, Soma can now use two different equipment sets that can be swapped at the press of the X button, a very welcome feature as it switching souls without entering the menu, thus letting the player adapt to each situation faster. The game also makes good use of the DS's top screen, displaying either the castle map or a screen with Soma's and enemy's stats. While having the map always visible is a godsend in this genre, having enemy info readily available is great when farming souls, as it does exactly the same thing the gadget from the Advance Collection does in Aria.

As for tuning, weapons have been rebalanced, emphasizing their variety. There's even a system through which, by imbuing weapons with certain souls, they can be upgraded, a nice addition that unfortunately ends up underutilized due to the rarity of some of the souls it requires. Having a use for excess souls, however, is a nice thought, and again I point to Bloodstained as the unofficial successor to Dawn, with Iga further refining this idea in that game.

Incidentally, while Aria already had souls that powered up with their count, Dawn brings this feature to the forefront explicitly calling it the Soul Level -- this is also a key feature in Bloodstained, where it exists for all souls-- uh, all shards. Souls have also been retooled in Dawn: while a lot of them are reskins from those from Aria, there are a handful of interesting new additions to the roster, and the player can expect to work with different toolsets than the ones the prequel gives. Of note is that late game souls are absolutely stacked, making them really gratifying to use.

And they have to be, because the best part of Dawn is its extremely challenging bosses. Aria's were great, but Dawn takes it to a new level: every boss is a unique enemy with a carefully crafted moveset, and their hits are extremely punishing. Even when spamming items, playing sloppily ultimately ends up in Soma getting overwhelmed, so instead, the player is expected to learn each tell and carefully avoid each attack. The magic seal mechanic is the cherry on top, forcing the player to remain vigilant for the prompt while adding flavor to finishing off the boss.

(Admittedly, if playing on an emulator, magic seals are an absolutely cursed mechanic, practically serving as an accidental form of anti-piracy . In that case, use the mod that removes them from the game.)

But is it better than Aria? Probably not: it will never be able to count on the simplicity and novelty factor that that game presented. However, even if it doesn't surpass its predecessor, it is a thoroughly enjoyable game that proudly stands at its prequel's side. Fans of Aria willing to look past a horrid first impression will find themselves a fiercely challenging game that brings back many of the original's boons.

I've been debating for a while whether I wanted to write a review for Silent Hill: The Short Message. I actually had one half-done and completely scrapped it because dogpiling further on something that's already being (rightfully) bashed by half the internet felt like a waste of energy, and I'd rather just spend my time turning "pixels make monkey brain release happy chemicals" into several paragraphs, or at the very least discussing something that has pros and cons. TSM kept showing up, though, and after seeing a bit of the developer interviews, I felt like I needed to write something, if only for the sake of catharsis. Strap in, this is going to be a long rant.

Content Warning: Spoilers, plus every warning that comes with this game (suicide, self-harm, bullying, parental/sexual abuse, etcetera).

My understanding of the current strategy at Konami is that the years of mismanagement left the company devoid of its original talent, so the same people that ran the company into the ground now try to find a way to outsource as much they can of their existing IP, see what sticks, and run with it. Silent Hill is their main victim, and The Short Message, their latest attempt at "reviving" the once prestigious series by having developer HexaDrive puppeteer the corpse.

And I wouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole -- I accepted long ago that Silent Hill is dead -- but I heard someone say that it was made by an indie developer and it was about gay girls and grief, which picked my interest. After going through TSM... I guess I understand how one could conclude that's what was happening if they squinted? But like, really squinted, and missed the collectables that establish Maya as not only heterosexual, but also pregnant? It's really not a queer narrative -- but never mind that, because that's far from biggest problem.

The Short Message can be described as an infinite trainwreck. It's not simply that it's bad -- it is, right from the start -- but as it goes on and on, as you stare in disbelief as more and more train piles up and the carnage keeps increasing, it becomes so much worse. In my first run, I wrote it off as a well-meaning but horrendously hamfisted attempt at tackling a serious theme, but as I dove into it, the more it felt like an offensive, out-of-touch caricature of what it portrayed, then finally as an harmful, exploitative piece of media and a terrible omen for the future of Konami properties. And instead of jumping right through to the end, let's go through each of those stages to understand why defenses offered for the game's many issues are absurd.


One of the greatest tools a horror writer can employ is the uncertain, the unknown. Scares are not nearly as effective as the anxiety that precedes them. Show the monster and we'll run the opposite direction. Imply a monster and we'll be tense the whole day, not knowing what it is or when or from where it will jump out at us. This goes for smaller and/or more abstract aspects of the world, as well: information that is directly told isn't as impactful as that which the reader pieces out on their own from breadcrumbs scattered in the text, and then some of their own imagination. The keyword here is "subtlety".

Think of Silent Hill 2. In that game, protagonist James Sunderland is invited to Silent Hill via a letter from his wife Mary, which is especially suspicious considering that Mary has been dead for three entire years. Except not really, as we soon find out. Even worse, we start discovering that James not only is not sound of mind, he might not be the good person he says he is. These things come up organically over the narrative: there are multiple things we can deduce about James as a character from his behavior, and he is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator, which leaves the truth behind multiple events undetermined.

The Short Message, on the other hand, features teens toxic relationship with social media, so in a span of thirty seconds, the main character looks at her phone, concludes and states aloud that she'll always have less followers than her friend, and decides to kill herself right then and there. Y'know. Just in case you didn't realize that she has a bad thing going on with social media, like, she has very low self esteem, and is depressed, and... did I mention social media? Because maybe you missed that.

Whether the writers think of themselves too highly or of their audience as complete idiots, the fact is that The Short Message is more afraid of its player than the opposite. It is a game desperate to be understood, certain that its player won't manage to grasp it, leading it to spell out everything in eye-rollingly clear detail. Every character's motivations is expressed plainly, every note, flashback and monologue recounts events in vivid, unnatural detail through writing so stiff it could qualify as a blunt weapon, and nothing is left to be felt, interpreted or speculated.

The result is a mix of second-hand embarassment, accidental comedy and tastelessness, and there are many, many examples of that we could pick apart, from the way the game communicates the protagonist's suffering of parental abuse, her relationship with social media, views on mental health... Even the names. Maya's full name is Maya Hindenburg. There are a bunch of problems with the game's supposedly German setting, starting with the name "Kettenstadt", and as a non-German person, I'll leave that to the German folk to elucidate but calling a German character, especially one like Maya, "Hindenburg", is truly something special.

One of the worst offenders, though, actually has nothing to do with any of the characters and is instead a note that describes "The Silent Hill Phenomenon", a medical phenomenon where mentally distraught people will sometimes see fog outside in days of clear weather. "Societal uncertainty or apprehension about the future manifests as fog". It's a desperate and transparent attempt to explain how one can silent hill outside of Silent Hill, and as such, this is a Silent Hill game!

Besides lacking any sort of grace or mystery, this excuse is being made about something that truly doesn't matter: the physical location of games has been the least of the franchise's problems in the last decade or two. Resident Evil 4 took place miles away from Raccoon City and the T-Virus, but it was a great game, so who cares? Heck, P.T. took place in a hallway and people went nuts over it, and it's unlikely the hype would have died down if they'd announce it wouldn't take place in literal Silent Hill. But apparently, it's such a big deal to the writers that they needed to include this note about it in the game.


The Short Message isn't a queer narrative, but the first chapter definitely has one thinking otherwise. Was this intentional? Was the developer queerbaiting for clout? At first, it felt like this might be the case, but then Hanlon's razor hit, and one look at the rest of the script revealed that the explanation was probably much simpler: this story about teenage girls had probably been written by an out-of-touch middle-aged man who only ever observed them from afar. This suspicion was later confirmed in the developer interviews.

There's a tendency for men like that to, mixing their own perception of sexuality with their ignorance on the nuances of social interactions between young women, write characters that read as absolute gal pals, but are actually super straight, creating these fictional people that register as unnatural to most people and as somewhat revolting to queer folk, as they reinforce the narrative that homosexuality is just a phase people grow out of while simultaneously fetishizing same-sex attraction.

Not that it's worth lingering on the topic of queerness, because unfortunately, that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as TSM's portrayals of people go: the way teenage girls are presented registers like a condescending caricature made by an older generation, complete with an understanding on how young people engage with social media that could reasonably air on your regional equivalent of Fox News. Furthermore, the events involving bullying are so surface-level that they seem straight out of some American rom-com -- the jocks 'jumpscare' gets more laughter than gasps -- and the portrayals of mental illness are uninformed at best and harmful at worst.

The latter is especially problematic because TSM operates under the guise of doing public service and warning about suicide -- more on that in a second -- but good intentions aren't enough when talking about such a theme. Much to the contrary: because vulnerable people will very easily shut themselves off from others, reveling in platitudes like TSM does is far more likely to have the opposite effect from the desired one. Ironically, the game alludes to this phenomenon, but misunderstands it and paints it as a character flaw.

At one point in the story, Anita tells her friend via text that "adults don't understand". It's meant as a failure of her character -- she won't reach out -- but she's right. Adults don't understand. They forget that being a teenager is a messed up part of life, where these developing kids struggle with all sorts of intensive changes to their brains and bodies, as well as a gamut of emotions adults may have gotten used to after years of living them, but teens are definitely not. If anything, the amount of vile discourse around perfectly normal teenager insecurities TSM sprung out of people is proof that we definitely don't care enough for our teens, and are probably encouraging them to shut themselves off instead of seeking help.

Which is a very good segue into the next point: a lingering question throughout The Short Message's runtime is "does this game have anything to say?". Yes, social media bad. We know. Facebook has been there for 20 years and we've all seen it. And yes, depression bad, and that hotline number spammed on the player's face will maybe help. And? Are you going to say something about it, open some sort of discussion, make some criticism that isn't of the main character herself?

Let me help with some leading questions: how does our current societies and the physical spaces they occupy shape teenagers relationship with social media, and are the problems in that relationship exclusive to that age group? What could be changed about social media to avoid that? What sort of structures are in place that allow, if not incentivise bullying to happen, and what groups are more often targeted? What about cyberbullying, specifically? Are women more vulnerable? Are artists and artistic-minded folk more likely to suffer from mental illnesses?

There are many discussions TSM could bring to the table if it would just stop and focus into one theme. The problem is, it isn't remotely interested in any of those things.


A somewhat frustrating take that's taken over discourse around the Silent Hill series is that it's all about "trauma". It's a reductionist view, for one, as the series presents a variety of fascinating themes, and trauma is mostly worked on in Silent Hill 2. Even looking at that game alone, however, the lens it uses to examine that subject is important: when people say SH2 is about trauma, they refer to how that game examines it through people who have suffered through it, not focusing on their past, but instead, on their present. It's not literally about trauma, it's about the broken husks of people that trauma leaves behind.

In TSM, there's a scene somewhere in the first half of the game triggered by interacting with a bloodied sink where a razor sits. It's a graphic scene that shows the protagonist inflicting self-harm while crying and begging for forgiveness, and from the start, it registered as tasteless and unnecessary: looking at the sink already told the entire story, and if you've dealt with people that practice self-harm, you know it's not something to be shown. Much worse than misguided, however, hearing the developers themselves repeat this idea of Silent Hill equaling trauma and how it shaped their entire work reveals the ugly truth: TSM is entirely about trauma and in no way about people.

Suicide isn't a theme to be discussed, but rather, it's material, and the point of the game is not, in fact, in starting conversations about the topic, nor in building characters or exploring their mental states. Instead, it wants its small cast to suffer as hard as possible, in as many ways as possible, for the audience's perverse appreciation. It's a theme park ride where we tack as many mental illnesses and assorted cruelties as possible onto the character so as to... scare? the player? "To your left, right now, the liiiiiiiiving room of chiiiiild abuuuuuse!!! 👻". It has been labeled "trauma tourism" by some, an accurate descriptor for what the game actually achieves.

It turns out, and gamers with lower constitutions might want to sit down before hearing this, but good horror isn't just a slideshow of bad stuff. It's actually an elaborate sequence of build ups, releases, and developments. Shocking, right? It goes further than that: psychological horror isn't quite the same as flipping through the pages in the ICD's psychiatry section. Doing so is more likely to confuse than to terrify, and the fact that people who didn't understand these things got a few million dollars and the license to a high-profile IP is disturbing.

Or, really, understand anything about writing a good story or dealing with sensitive subjects. To think HexaDrive was once being considered as developers for the Silent Hill 2 Remake... if these people had written Silent Hill 2, they'd place a note with a psych evaluation of James somewhere so as to clue the player in. There would be more flashbacks showing Eddie being bullied than actual meetings with Eddie, and they'd be sure to show Angela being violently abused on camera. Otherwise, how would the player realize why those characters act the way they do, and how would they be able to empathize?

Not that Bloober Team is set to fare any better, but we'll cross that (burning) bridge when we get there. For now, Silent Hill: The Short Message is a pathetic addition not simply to the already bastardized enough Silent Hill series, but to gaming in general, and the fact that it claims to have a message of any sort, to have importance, is offensive. If anything, it serves as a strong proof that free can sometimes be too expensive a price of admission.

The chase sections

...oh, yeah, this is not a pure walking sim, there's chase sections and such. Bolted on chase sections, so I might as well bolt on something about them to this review. There are a few chase sections where Anita is pursued by a cherry blossom monster in the Otherworld, and you know they're coming because she will begin to desperately pant and whimper as soon as she steps into one such area, almost as if the game was telling its player it's time to be scared.

What's most jarring about these sections, however, is how HexaDrive managed to make something entirely composed of outdated horror game tropes. There's even a bit at the very end of the game that's reminiscent of The Eight Pages, except with none of the depth, or charm, or... anything that already lousy game had to offer. I doubt ever they played The Eight Pages or even lived through its heights of popularity to understand what made it click, anyway.

Likewise, some believe Silent Hill: The Short Message to be some sort of response to P.T., as if to show they don't need Kojima to make a beloved free teaser. I refuse to believe the anyone involved in this nonsense ever played P.T., or even know it existed. If they did, and this was truly an attempt to replicate it's success... let's say it's no simple feat to miss the mark by this much, and congratulations are in order.