Virtual-On Retrospective: A Certain Magical Virtual-On

Previous: MARZ

Kamachi Kazuma, a novelist for Dengeki Bunko most known for his A Certain Magical Index series was approached by Sega to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Virtual-On series with a novel. Their approach for Kamachi was to do a new sort of Virtual-On instead of just doing what had been done in the past, resulting in a cross-over novel. This was a sort of dream project for Kamachi, and at this point, it’s not longer just a dream, with A Certain Magical Virtual-On game released in early 2018.

A Certain Magical Index‘s first novel was released in April 2004, debuting Kazuma Kamachi as mainstream light novel writer, which also gained a popular animated series in 2008, and gets its third season in 2018. The series mainly takes place in a fictional city called Academy City, west from Tokyo, where science has advanced more than in the outside world. This city is of scientific marvels, making leaps and bounds to every which way. This means the city has constant testing of new technology and designs, including testing such things as weird soda drink flavours. The city is walled all around, protecting the valued assets and data, but also keeps other people out.

The most important project that’s running in Academy City is its espers. The city has around 2.3 million espers, all students who partake in Power Curriculum Program, which aims to attain one’s own Personal Reality in order to awaken esper powers. Personal Reality is essentially one’s own secular view on reality, able to affect the objective reality’s state through their own “power” to the system in microscale. Essentially an esper believes, if you will, that she can control electricity, and so she does. However, the Curriculum requires quite literal rewiring of the person’s brains through use of various drugs in all forms, various forms of hypnosis and suggestions, slight surgical manipulation of the brain, and different sensory deprivation methods. This rewiring effectively separates the students from reality, after which they may develop powers depending on their own reality. All these powers of course are not as potent as others, with some never manifesting any.

However, this is the science side of things, and the main story takes place in the magic side. Sorcerers mostly belong to different sects and religions of the world, and their magical power does not stem from being separated from the world, but rather from idol worship, where a system of rituals are prepared in order to invoke higher powers to grant supernatural effects on reality. This can range from creating golems to controlling wind with a tool. These are fundamentally different kind of power from that of an esper, and due to the sheer difference how the users’ are wired thanks to the Curriculum, an esper can’t use magic without physical trauma. Similarly, a sorcerer does not have access to espers’ powers, as they lack a Personal Reality.

Enter Kamijou Touma, the series’ main protagonist, who has the power to break down supernatural powers with his right hand. He has a rotten luck, which drops him into fights, causes him to lose money, or in one case, meet up with an English nun named Index, who is being chased. Due to circumstances, Touma is made Index’s companion, with the English church allowing him to accompany her despite the clear threat his right hand poses to them. Index is important asset to the world of magicians, as she holds Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a library of 103 000 forbidden books, in her head due to photographic memory and can recollect information from those pages. This places them both in a crossroad of events and situations, where both the world of science and magic collide with each other, often despite of them, sometimes because of their direct actions.

This is, of course, very short and spartan introduction to the A Certain Magical Index series’ world, as we need some context for A Certain Magical Virtual-On.

A light novel called A Certain Magical Virtual-On (or とある魔術の電脳戦機 if you’re so inclined) crosses the two franchises over to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Virtual-On. Sega apparently approached Dengeki Bunko, the publisher of the light novel series, and the author Kamachi to write this cross-over, considering Index and its various spin-off series, like A Certain Scientific Railgun, are still very popular.

Kamachi’s a writing machine, publishing at least three books a year, doesn’t miss deadlines, takes breaks from writing in form of writing something else, has been releasing novels monthly since 2014 and overall should be considered a writing machine in form of flesh. All the while not really allowing himself much leeway when it comes to quality, making sure that minute details fit each other, world building is done properly and things are kept as a proper whole rather than letting things just relapse and spread around. As usual for a Japanese light novelist, we don’t know much else about him, and that’s good. His works and the success they enjoy is all that really matters, in the end.

If you’re not all that interested in the novel’s story or don’t want to be spoiled, you should skip right down to character and Virtuaroid introductions further down.

The cross-over novel takes place rather late in the novel series’ canon timeline, after so-called Gremlin Arc, but is considered a non-canon spin-off. It introduces a Personal Device, or a PD, which functions much like a smartphone, with allowing to pay transactions, use GPS, chat and so on. It’s also a fully fledged portable game console with sticks and buttons, and a special set of goggles the player puts on in order to play the next generation Virtual-On. Apparently, the game series exists within the books’ world as well.

The book’s plot is centered around the introduction of a Virtual-On tournament, a mysterious giant blue Cypher called Blue Stalker and the surge of Defected players. Defected are users who have broken certain safety protocols in their Personal Device to access further services on it. The last bit that leads to conclusion is the realisation that Virtuaroids begin to exist within Academy City due to Reverse Conversion.

The novel introduces the Index’s own Bal-Bados variant, Bal-Roon, which fights in a similar manner, just with a candy theme. Blue Stalker, the abnormally large Cypher, is on the right.

The story keeps A Certain Magical Index‘s and Virtual-On‘s relatively separate in order to keep the charm of both stories’ concept at a proper bay, but does toy with the ideas both provide. Index already had concepts relating to affecting reality through magic and esper abilities, and when thrown together with Virtual-On‘s concepts of V-Discs materialising Virtuaroids through Reverse Conversion and how that affects reality, you get a story where the balance of these elements have to complement each other somehow. The story explores the ideas of V-Discs affecting the players who have Defected, as they affect the player as much as they affect the Virtuaroid, and how this effect stands apart from the two major supernatural element in the Index world. Neither play a major part in the book’s story, as it concentrates on the aspects Virtual-On has brought, rather than the other way around. Especially considering how Reverse Conversion could negate the power levels between espers, if they were to materialise elements from the Virtuaroids into the real world.

Things start to get interesting when its found out that NPC Virtuaroids around the city still have their player pilots inside in a semi-zombified state, lacking any sensory perceptions outside playing the game. The way Defected players are affected by Virtual-On is direct; if you win, you gain something that’s an aspect of the Virtuaroid, which can be customised to a large extent in the novel with scanned objects. For example, scanning a fast car would implement speed into a Virtuaroid. A Defected player, when winning, would gain some speed in some manner on their physical body. When losing, you lose something, like the ability to visualise text you’ve read, or worse, autonomic control of your bodily functions, causing an organ failure. Of course, considering games keep a log of wins and losses, things can stack up rather drastically.

And when you’re in a desperate spot in losing what makes you bit by bit with accumulated losses, an unconscious fear and yearning begin to override your logic. This leads the player to become a Shadow, as mentioned in MARZ’s entry.

While Virtual-On is a game within the A Certain Magical Index‘s world, its origin as means of advanced warfare and entertainment as Limited Wars within Virtual-On‘s own setting come into play as a major way. After all, those who are rejected by Tangram, the Pan Dimensional Reality Synthesizer, the one which exists at the root of realities and free to choose any path and causality, are sent to parallel worlds and replace someone there.

You can never imagine the things waiting at the end before you venture in

Tangram had already chosen someone, however, and this was L’ln Plajiner, it’s original creator in Virtual-On. With the concept of parallel realities containing a version of each person, Plajiner’s role would always be the one driving advancements in science in a given world. As it happens, for Index‘s world it would be Academy City itself. Of course, a city in itself can’t choose an action. Blue Stalker forced a creation of another, Second Plajiner, within this world where impossible actions are almost mundane, you can create an existence able to control Tangram and choose the paths where all those not chosen by Tangram would return from their exile.

Effectively, controlling a created god that linked all parallel worlds, and being able to create one’s own personal reality.

Tangram is ultimately used, perhaps a literal deus ex machina if you will, in the book’s finale to erase another world’s influence outside on Academy City and the existence Furashina Lilin, allowing the introduction of Virtual-On as a simple next generation game with no connections to the Limited Wars in the epilogue.

The A Certain Magical Virtual-On game continues from these events, with Lilin having introduced Voosters Cup as a big event for all to enjoy their Virtual-On playing.

As usual, nothing ever really goes as planned. Blue Stalker appears early in the tournament to fight against Touma and Index, with Shadows following soon after. However, becoming a Shadow is not the only worry. Feed Pain, physical trauma gained from being hit by the opponent’s attacks while playing, increases the chances of becoming a Shadow, and Shadows themselves now actively search for opponents to fight in order to regain something they’ve lost. It’s not like you can properly refuse a match either. It would seem that V-Crystals still act like they usually do, meaning the technology L’Lin Plajiner used to create Virtual-On in this world from scratch is not much different from the original, despite used only for sports.

Matters worsen, as the Church of England’s agents have to move in and look into matters themselves, certain  magical god Othinus comes into contact with Tangram, corrupt fields appearing with trapped Virtual-On referees and this new Blue Stalker is revealed to be L’Lin Plajiner herself.

While the novel does mention Guarayakha by name, it doesn’t emphasize at what game it crosses over with Virtual-On. The PlayStation 4/Vita game, however, is more or less a direct cross over of Oratorio Tangram, as nudged by the Mental Shift Battle System version 55.55. with some of the better elements lifted from FORCE and MARZ.

We’d better got over the playable characters at this point and their respective Virtuaroids, before moving into the game’s system changes over the previous entries. Be sure to click a character for a larger view and a description.

I’m hesitant on spoiling the game’s last boss, PPRIMA, as the game is completely new, but it must be mentioned that Virtual-On finally has a final boss that doesn’t outright suck.

With MARZ  being the last Virtual-On game released decade and a half ago A Certain Magical Virtual-On had to revise its approach to a large extent. With the concepts introduced in the novel, the game’s basic system has been revamped to work within new restrictions, making the normal game play like Virtual-On should, just with shifted goals and more opportunities.

The HUD has been overhauled, presented in a very straight and easy-to-read manner, but still different from previous. Note the new green Stamina gauge above the yellow energy (HP) gauge, and right next to them is the round Voost Gauge

There are now two ways to win a fight. First is the usual method of simply depleting the opponent’s energy to zero. The second method is through points. Each time you manage to knock-down opponent’s Stamina bar to zero, you get points depending on the situation, attack used and such. This means not even the smallest hit can be ignored, as it means depletion of the Stamina gauge, despite it having slight recovery to it. You are also given a chance to chase a downed opponent in certain situations. If you land a hit during Chance, you net 20 extra points. The maximum amount of points is 999.

The players are encouraged to keep engaging with the opponent at all times, even if they have a point lead. If no attack has hit the opponent within certain time, they will get penalty in form of constant point reduction. This doesn’t only force engaging gameplay, but also emphasizes on avoiding getting hit as much as possible so the opposing player will be under point reduction penalty. This approach prevents Oratorio Tangram‘s high-level gameplay tactics to an extent, where players would deal some damage to an opponent and then wait until the timer runs out.  Effectively, the system makes A Certain Magical Virtual-On a more sportslike game.

Too bad PlayStation 4’s internal capture is only at 30fps in 1080p. However, that won’t save you from the terrible play seen in this video

The game uses both 1-vs-1 and 2-vs-2 modes, though this time they are not dragged down by FORCE‘s and MARZ‘s sluggish approach. The speed of the game is comparable to Oratorio Tangram, with at least the same pace of gameplay. While most 1-vs-1 battles tend to end in destructive victory, 2-vs-2 matches tend to go for a point win, if the two sides are evenly matched. The game also has a mode for Deathtraction, a mode where the game pits wave after wave of Shadows against the player.

As A Certain Magical Virtual-On was designed and developed to be played on a console from the grounds up, the control scheme has been revamped to fit the standard modern controller.

It may be in Japanese, but being the clever reader you are, you’ll notice that all you need is the acronyms

First, there are two modes; Smart and Veteran. Smart mode keeps the enemy center in the screen all the time without the player needing to reset at any point. This is at the cost of not being able to control the camera in any fashion. Veteran mode uses the standard Virtual-On lock-on mechanism.

The biggest change is that L1 and R1 are now designated for Turbo weapons, giving the player direct access to them. While you can still press Square and L2 or R2 for a Turbo attack, it is more reliable to use L1 and R1. As usual, Center Weapons is engaged by pressing both L and R shoulder buttons together at their respective strengths. Triangle now functions as dedicated melee button, meaning you can swing your weapons at any desirable distance. You also Guard by pulling the control stick back while holding Triangle down. This also allows the use of projectile weapons at a close range, something that was not possible beforehand. Circle turns the Virtuaroid towards the lock-on opponent and allows skimming during dashing, and R3 changes between opponents in 4-player matches. X functions as both jump and jump cancel, something MARZ should have implemented now that double jump is gone.

The D-Pad has been dedicated for team conversation, though it’s not appearing above due to it not existing in the Demo version.

The last button, the touch pad, engages the Voost Weapon, a VR and character specific move that uses all the Voost Gauge residing to the right of Stamina and Energy. Outside giving an access to trump card -like attack, it also engages a boost mode, increasing movement and mobility significantly. This mode lasts until the Voost Gauge is empty. This slight addition might seem like it can turn tables for the winning side, but without proper aiming and use of the Boost mode, it can  most certainly go to waste.

Using a Voost Weapon engages a small cinematic before the actual attack

These changes refine the gameplay overall and gives easier access to otherwise previously hard-to-access moves like skimming and vector thrusting.

Presentation is nothing less than top notch, with great detail and use of colour throughout the game. However, I have to say that there is certain overuse of shades of blue going around. Detailing the environment and VR themselves has gone up a whole lot. It’s step away from the geometrical style Virtual-On was using, but now that hardware limitations are not an issue, going for a more natural look for the environments and VR themselves makes the game look up-to-date.

However, things don’t play as smooth on the Vita. The device struggles to run the game at a steady framerate, despite dropped model accuracy, effects and stage detail. Even the main menu graphics run on visibly lower framerate compared to the PS4 version. Loading character models during selection tanks tanks the framerate for a solid second, and lacks certain animations on the characters. Furthermore, the lower level 3D models don’t all look all that great, with Temjin looking like its missing most of its face due to the flat grey shading. If you’re looking for screenshots for the Vita version, most of the accompanied images in the official media, like Amazon JP, are from the PS4 version.

Oh my God, what happened to your face?

If you have a choice, pick the PS4 version. It’s just more recommended of the two and won’t leave a bad taste. The Vita simply doesn’t have the hardware to run A Certain Magical Virtual-On at a required level.

Saten’s Voost Weapon for comparison

The story sequences play out in the cut and dry visual novel fashion and are probably the least interesting thing to look at, despite the animation on otherwise inanimate characters portraits.

The city sequences especially drive in the blue hues in the background. She’s Last Order, one of the Misaka clones known as Sisters. The series has lot to go for it, I recommend giving it a look at least

While previous Virtual-On games had some voice acting, with MARZ leading the pack with the story sequences, A Certain Magical Virtual-On is fully voiced. Characters yell each other during the match and the virtual assistant Lilin informing you of situations, like when the opponent’s Voost Gauge is full or when your opponent has been downed. It may sound rather annoying at first, and it probably is if you don’t understand the language, but especially in a 4-player match such information is good to have, seeing you can’t have everything on the screen at the same time. Sometimes Lilin is a bit late on her updates, but that’s simply because the game’s pace is fast.

Naturally, the game’s play must be commended by its stage and field design. The game has total of ten stages and five field designs. Out of these five, four have two variations, smaller and larger with either geometry or structure differences. The larger stages have been designed 4-player games in mind, and in 1-vs-1 situation they tend to get a bit too large and empty. This causes about half of the stages emphasizing long-range combat over anything else, which puts all close-range specialist in a tighter spot. However, the game’s meta is still being developed, so it’s hard to say what it’ll be in the end.

The fields’ geometries have a certain nice theme, none of them are truly completely open. Even the final stage, Gate Field, has a rising spot in the middle. Uncharacteristically, the these stages force the players to acknowledge height differences in significant manner

While the game’s sound may end up being a cacophony of lasers and missiles flying around with the occasional cat noise and characters’ radio chatter, the soundtrack should not be ignored. Enter Yuzo Koshiro, the man who knows how a Sega game should sound like. Transition 2018 is the latest version of Transition, which in a way could be described as the series main theme as it is used in each entry in the series. Koshiro’s new tracks follow Virtual-On‘s musical themes in techno to an extent, with happy go lucky songs, but he has mixed some influence from the A Magical Index and A Certain Scientific Railgun series with more hard hitting beats, making the songs stand out far more than previously. In short, Yuzo Koshiro has made the best soundtrack Virtual-On has had to date, despite having half the amount of tracks the games usually have.

Drill Domination is one of those tracks that just stuck to your mind. Also notice that Tangram’s symbol behind him is red with runes. This depends on the side the character resides in, magic or science

As for the modes within the game, you have the aforementioned Story mode, which was written by Kamachi himself. Each character has their own part in the story and the routes overlap with each other at a constant rate, making it a rather coherent and interesting story.

Versus mode is Online only, making this the weakest part of the package. The lack of split-screen play is a missed opportunity, something that prevents the game from getting highest possible scores. Nevertheless, the Online Versus contains the usual stuff, with optional rules and such. The online is very dependent on each players’ connection, but generally seems to work as expected.

Mission Mode ranges from normal battles to limited Arcade mode and aforementioned Deathtraction battles. There is also a timed survival mode and numerous other special scenarios. Outside the Story Mode, this is the mode with most meat for single-player experience. On the upside, you can play Mission Mode online with a friend.

Training exists there, and new players should probably hit that first after the introduction Lilin gives when you boot the game first time around.

Sadly, that’s all there is to play, making this package about as sparse as any other Virtual-On game. Mission Mode will keep players interested for a limited time, but it’s clear that Sega wanted to emphasize Online over conventional local versus.

With Online, and Virtual-On tradition, the player gets their own card to modify in Terminal mode, where they can change its colour, add their own phrase from pre-selected words, change the character on the card and showcase gained medals. This mode also shows all the statistics, BGM and voice test selection. As a bonus, it has all the character portraits and their animation, as well as 3D models for the VR for your viewing pleasure. This card, and saves and whatnot, can also be Cross Saved between the PS4 and Vita versions, if you end up owning both.

A solid black background comes with the territory, I guess

You could say that the game is spartan in content, but the emphasize has been on quality over quantity, as A Certain Magical Virtual-On is probably the best entry in the series.

The game was released in four editions, two standards for PS4 and Vita, and both gaining their own special editions. The PS4 Limited Edition, titled Disciple 55, comes with the game, Cyber Troopers Virtual-On Official Sound Data 18 (the OST of the game), a How To Play guide for the game with nice illustrations, and Chronicle 20 book. This book is filled to the brim with the complete history of Virtual-On, collecting sketches and official art from the 20+ history of the game. It also includes previously published Virtual-On short novel, One-Man Rescue.

It’s a sizeable package

The Vita limited edition was more A Certain Magical Index heavy, containing the same How To Play booklet, A Certain Magical Archive, All About Certain Magical Virtual-On booklet and radio drama titled Toaru Majutsu no Denon Mokuroku. Neither came with superballs this time around.

As for the DLC, the game has additional DLC routes for all the playable characters, including Last Order with Accelerator (he has no other real friends), DNA and RNA colours from Oratorio Tangram for the Virtuaroids in two sets, and Black Ticket, which opens up all Virtuaroid and stage related unlockables as well as all entries in Mission Mode.

Prior to the game’s release, both A Certain Magical Index and Virtual-On fans seemed to have a negative reaction to the game overall, especially in the Western fandom. It wasn’t all too uncommon to accuse Sega to turn Virtual-On into a waifugame (which they already had done with Oratorio Tangram, but clang clang is something people usually don’t think about) and lamenting that such an awful IP had to sully a legendary game series.

Some Index fans lamented similar fate, as none of the previous games based on the series are particularly high quality. However, it would seem the game has won the Japanese fans over with its high-quality production.

The most common complaint in both East and West has been how it plays differently from Oratorio Tangram, but as usual, you can’t simply repackage the same game over and over again. Oratorio Tangram has been deified by Virtual-On fans to the point that they’ll settle nothing else but Oratorio Tangram 2.0, which would have very little point to it. With the changes and addition A Certain Magical Virtual-On has done to the systems, we’ve gained something different that is in many places superior to Oratorio Tangram.

I have hopes that this title will revive the interest on Virtual-On for the time being, and that the game will ensure future entries in the franchise to keep it relevant, be it tied to A Certain Magical Index or not.

Next: Twin Stick controller retrospective

6 thoughts on “Virtual-On Retrospective: A Certain Magical Virtual-On

  1. My only real commplain about this entry in the franchise is (a bit of a nitpick) that move of, taking out the V-Converter “squeal” when dashing… I mean is a very classic if not essential sound of the franchise, why take it out?! (I can think of some reasons but as a fan it was very dissapointing)

  2. Another game never see light of day outside japan version, how i wish they port to pc, allowing us to DIY our own twin stick to play

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