Video games and other things.

Small Town World

All entertainment mediums are strange in certain ways, but television is one of the weirdest. Since TV producers typically make their revenue from advertising, there’s pressure to get as many eyeballs as possible watching any given program; after all, the higher the ratings, the higher the ad rates can go. This leads to shows—including non-fiction ones like news broadcasts—using sensational hooks to draw viewers in, often exaggerating situations to no good effect. TV becomes a shallow caricature of regular life, but a compelling one. Such tendencies lead to oversimplified ideas, inadvertent fame, and other problems, and the smaller the community in which these things take root, the faster they spread. These problems and others are at the heart of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4.

Satoru begins his life in Inaba as The New Transfer Student.Set in a small Japanese town called Inaba, Persona 4 opens much the same way its predecessor did, with the protagonist (for the rest of the review, we’ll call him Satoru Minami, which is what I named him in-game) being introduced to the Velvet Room, where he is told that he has one year to unravel a mystery that he will soon become involved in. As Satoru gets settled in at his uncle’s house and new school, this mystery soon manifests in the form of murders that occur on foggy nights. There is also the matter of the Midnight Channel, an urban legend which claims that you can see your romantic match if you stare into a turned-off TV screen on a rainy night. It is on one such night that Satoru discovers that he can put his hand into the TV screen. This is how Satoru’s adventures in the “TV world” begin.

Unlike in real life, the weather forecasts are accurate most of the time.The TV world is an odd place, perpetually foggy, overrun with aggressive beings called Shadows. It is divided into wildly different regions that exaggerate concealed personality traits and feelings, sometimes to outrageous effect. This world is where the vast majority of the RPG part of the game takes place. The battle system is a refined version of the “press-turn” ones from previous MegaTen games which, in a welcome change from Persona 3, allows Satoru to directly control his teammates during battle whenever he wishes. The Personas themselves are magical animas whose abilities can be called upon in battle; unlike the other party members, Satoru’s Persona ability is the “wild card”, which allows him to obtain, fuse together, and hold multiple Personas. Weather conditions in the real world determine if certain rare monsters will show up in the TV world on a given day, and in addition, there are “fusion forecasts” which change day to day and affect what bonuses are granted when creating new Personas in the Velvet Room.

Outside of the TV world, Satoru attends high school, and can go shopping, take on part-time jobs, read books, go out to eat, fish, do favors for people around town, and, most importantly, get to know the people around him a bit better. Forming and improving your “Social Links” with these people—a group which includes fellow party members, as well as family, classmates, coworkers, and others—leads to stronger Personas created through fusion, and unlocks other in-dungeon benefits. They are also miniature stories within the wider scope of the main one, often helping to illustrate why certain characters are the way they are, and showing how they grow and change as people. My one major regret upon reaching Persona 4‘s “good ending” was that I did not get to finish more of these tales.

Speaking of Social Links, the characterization is some of the most true-to-life that I have seen in any JRPG, including Persona 3, in some time. The characters all act their age and are clearly imperfect; this latter bit ties into a very important theme of the overarching story—self-awareness and acceptance—but is refreshing nevertheless. As for the former, the strongest example is Nanako Dojima, a normal seven year old girl without any of the precociousness that plagues so many children in JRPGs. She loves singing along with commercial jingles, thinks platypuses are awesome, and struggles with her feelings toward a workaholic dad who doesn’t have much time to devote to her. She is, in many ways, the heart of Persona 4, and ended up being my favorite character in the game.

Teddie.If Nanako is the heart of the game, the soul is Teddie, a cartoon-like bear in a clownish outfit who is roughly the shape of a snow cone. When you first meet him, he is the only friendly resident of the TV world, and shares some of its flamboyance through his personality. Seeing him grow, form friendships, and come to terms with his place in the grand scheme of things is fascinating to watch.

While the characters and their stories are fascinating, the major downside of Persona 4‘s storytelling, strictly from a practical perspective, are the frequently long cutscenes. Save points break these up regularly, though it can sometimes take between thirty and forty-five minutes between each one. While I had enough time blocked out to consume these scenes as they came about, this setup became problematic during the game’s single most heartwrenching event, during which a lengthy series of dialogue choices has to be gone through—choices for which the answers were not as straightforward as they might seem—in order to determine which way the story goes. Make even one mistake, and you’re put on a short path toward a bad ending. Oh, and prior to this set of choices, there’s some thirty minutes of drama, the impact of which is ultimately lessened by going through this section multiple times in order to get the “correct” answer. I’ve been told that the annoyance of this section has been lessened in the PS Vita port, Persona 4 Golden, through the addition of a save point, but I can’t confirm this myself.

Still, that’s my only major gripe about what’s otherwise a near-perfect game. The poppy soundtrack is just as wonderful as Persona 3‘s. As with many of Atlus’ PS2 games, the 3D graphics are serviceable, but the 2D ones, which include character portraits, the menus, and various comic book-like effects, are frequently inventive and always pleasing to the eye. The localization work is another outstanding Atlus USA production, but the voice acting, while good overall, is not quite up to their previous standards. Some of Chie’s lines, not to mention most of Margaret’s, are delivered in a wooden fashion, and Naoto’s battle dialogue is unnecessarily over the top. However, the voice actors for Kanji, Teddie, Nanako, and Adachi turn in excellent performances all around.

This game’s a keeper, and is one that I will likely revisit sometime in the future. Have to complete those other Social Link stories, after all.

Little Updates and Some Braincrumbs

Ever since late January, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4‘s been eating up most of my gaming time. I finally beat it yesterday, but am going to put off writing about it for now (and I will write about it, promise) to get some reviews out of the way. Like the previously reviewed Paper Mario: Sticker Star, these are all games which I played when I was not preoccupied with Persona 4.

Before that, though, I just want to note that the links page has been updated for a couple of friends’ sites and a Let’s Play. I also want to note that the Kickstarter for “Frog Fractions 2″ is currently going on and that you should pitch in, if you haven’t already. That’s all for now, so let’s get to it…

Twilight Zone – Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood

After beating Sticker Star, it would seem odd that my next “secondary” RPG would be another one based around platformer mascot characters, but that’s what it was. Sonic Chronicles, which is perhaps most famous for being made by BioWare, is the first and only RPG in the Sonic franchise. Given the rocky history of Sonic games and the unusual choice of developer, I both wasn’t quite sure what to expect and didn’t keep my hopes up. This proved to be a wise tactic.

Sonic Chronicles follows the title hedgehog and his friends on a quest to rescue a kidnapped Knuckles from a group called the Nocturnus, and eventually, save a whole lot more. It uses some prominent bits of Sonic lore in telling its tale, and many series regulars make appearances, including Amy, Shadow, Big, and Cream. There are dialogue trees sprinkled throughout, though they don’t really affect what direction the story takes, as well as a sprinkling of humor and pop culture references (the Soundgarden one was the most out-of-left-field of the latter). Aside from some bits of dialogue that could’ve done with much tighter editing, and every single human NPC being a white male of some sort, the story works well enough, both for the Sonic universe and in general.

Amy starts to do the "Tantrum" POW move.However, the game controls in exactly the way one would expect from a big-name developer who had never made a DS title before: every action requires touchscreen input, including starting the game. There are only two actions that have button-based alternatives (the field abilities and opening the menu), but if one has to use a stylus for everything else anyway, there’s no point in using anything else. This touchscreen gameplay is fine for the most part, but gets tricky when using the special POW abilities during battle, all of which require precise timing. Most POW moves will thankfully let you do at least some damage if you mess up the inputs, but healing and other support actions will fail outright in such cases. This being the case, the support characters are pretty much useless until one obtains a certain very rare Chao which lets you bypass the timed inputs—and even then, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll ever be able to get this Chao, as which ones hatch from what eggs is apparently random.

The rest of the game is a mix of polished and clunky. For example, while some of the music sounds fine, albeit generic, other pieces are dinky and an embarrassment to the franchise; one of these happens to be the only piece that I recognized as being from a previous Sonic game, a bare-bones cover of “Diamond Dust Zone, Act 1″, originally from the Genesis version of Sonic 3D Blast (what’s odd is that Richard Jacques is in the credits, presumably for this piece, when, to the best of my knowledge, it was actually written by Jun Senoue). The graphics fare better, though the 3D character models are kind of ugly when seen head-on, and the POW move icons are a bit more pixelated and jaggy than they could be. Taken as a whole, it’s an odd, quirky entry in a franchise that’s no stranger to the occasional odd, quirky entry. It might be worth a look if you’re a Sonic fan and/or into such curiosities (I fit both criteria), but it’s hard to recommend as a good RPG.

Sunny, Funny Days – Cherry Tree High Comedy Club

Speaking of playing similar games so close to each other, my next secondary title was a high school-based life simulator, much like the non-dungeony parts of Persona 4, but such was my mood when I started up this doujin game. Published by Capcom, localized by Nyu Media, and developed by 773, Cherry Tree High Comedy Club puts the player in the shoes of Miley, a high school student who dreams of becoming a professional comedian. To help achieve this dream, she has set out to recreate a school club that two alumni, now famous comics, were originally members of. Unfortunately, she needs a minimum of five club members in order to make it official, and she only has herself and her roommate. Thus, the goal of the game is to recruit those last three members before the deadline for new clubs closes.

The format should be familiar to anyone who has pursued Social Links in Persona 3 and/or 4: when not cultivating her knowledge of conversational topics (ranging from pets to politics) through reading or other activities, Miley talks to people around town and nurtures friendships with a specific subset of them. If she becomes close enough friends with any one of the six available candidates, they will join the club. Carrying out your search for club members day to day in this way can be repetitive after awhile, but given the format, it’s to be expected. It’s not a very long or difficult game, though some strategizing is required. I should also note that recruiting all six candidates seems to be impossible for a first playthrough; fortunately, there is a New Game Plus mode.

One of the more strangely written bits of dialogue.The music and story are bright and cheery, as are the graphics—save for some issues with text on characters’ clothing when their portraits are flipped—and the UI is very well designed. However, the one part of the game that stands out in a negative way is the localization. Although the writing itself is fine, typographical errors frequently appear throughout the dialogue, and I even caught a misspelled word in the user interface. It’s clear that this game would’ve greatly benefitted from a thorough round of copy editing/proofreading. Aside from that, there’s a quirk to this localization that is peculiar to Capcom-published visual novels: it’s rewritten to be set in the United States. Aside from the Westernized names, two noteworthy changes are that a certain pair of foreigners are now from Sweden instead of Canada, and the town’s shrine is explained as being a gift from Japan. Granted, this is not usually a major issue with me, but things like the shrine, not to mention the castle visible from the town’s park, are so obviously Japanese that one wonders why they even bothered with Americanization in the first place. These changes have also led me to wonder if the game itself (and by extension, worryingly, the gameplay) was altered so that there’s no school on Saturday in the English-language version, but I couldn’t find anything on 773′s site that seems to indicate this. Either way, the technically inept localization is a disappointment compared to the rest of the game, which is an enjoyable, lively diversion.

Secretive Dungeons – Hammerwatch

Not long after starting Miley’s adventures in club recruitment, I got The Itch and started up Hammerwatch, one of the few light-on-plot hardcore dungeon games left in my Steam backlog. It was one of the first things I had ever voted for on Greenlight, but I didn’t get around to actually picking it up until the last Steam Holiday Sale. After playing it, I’m kind of glad I didn’t pay full price.

The story is very simple: while escaping from a castle with your fellow adventurers, you alone get trapped and have to find your way out. The game is divided into four areas of three floors each. Each area has a boss, as well as minibosses, regular enemies, enemy spawn points, loot, treasure chests, traps, upgrade and potion shops, and secrets—lots of secrets. Most of these secrets take the form of hidden areas that can be found by attacking the right wall, pushing the right buttons, or solving puzzles, and lead to money, “vendor coins” (special items that lower the prices at shops), extra lives, and strange planks. Unlike most other games with such secrets, finding these goodies in Hammerwatch is practically required if one wants to make decent progress through the game. While I appreciate the focus on discovery, it seems a bit misguided to me to have so much of the game’s accessibility be dependent on what should be optional.

Trying to take this screenshot without getting killed was kind of tricky...Aside from that, the castle floors are massive and very well designed, though having to go through them again and again after failed playthroughs leads to a sort of boredom settling in. As for the enemies, although some interesting things are done with them from time to time, for the most part, they’re pretty brainless, and will just swarm straight to you once you’re in their line of sight.

There are four character classes to choose from (all male, which is a bit weird), which are all well-balanced with their own distinct strengths and weaknesses. Although I tend to gravitate toward melee classes for these types of games, after trying out all the classes on the Medium difficulty, I ended up beating Hammerwatch with the wizard, whose basic fireball attack struck the right chord with me. Playing any one of the classes is an exercise in repetition, though; no matter which class I was, I found myself using very similar strategies on most of the regular enemy types throughout the game.

As far as aesthetics go, I have no major complaints aside from an iffy loop point in the background music. The options for graphics, controls, etc. are very good, although controller support is limited. Hammerwatch also has a co-op multiplayer component and modding tools, which sound promising for anyone who’s into those sorts of things. However, if you’re like me and want a solid single-player dungeon crawler first and foremost, this isn’t bad, but you could do better.

Not Sticky Enough

One subset of games I am hopelessly devoted to are the Mario RPGs. There’s the original Super Mario RPG, of course, but my fondness is mainly for the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario games. Both series tend to be fairly consistent, quality-wise, making it hard to pick out a single favorite. I have fave characters across them all (Goombario, Vivian, Fawful, etc.), plus the level designs, writing, graphics, and music are all great. Even the most un-RPG-like of the crop, the Wii title Super Paper Mario, is a fun and engaging game, with much to recommend it.

Unfortunately, this streak has now been broken, as I have just finished playing a Mario RPG that would definitely not be in the running for my favorite—not even close. In fact, this game, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, is unequivocally the worst Mario RPG I’ve played to date.

Sticker Star by itself is unusual: it’s a 3DS game; in other words, the first and only portable entry in the Paper Mario series. I’m not sure why it wasn’t made for the Wii U instead, as that would seem to be a more fitting home for it, though maybe it has something to do with the fact that it looks great with the 3D effect cranked up. As for the game’s structure, it goes back to the turn-based battle styles of the first two Paper Marios, but this time, there’s no additional party members.

Mario is accompanied by a helper character, though: a silver crown sticker named Kersti. She is introduced shortly after the opening, where, during a festival in which a magical sticker comet receives the wishes that the Mushroom Kingdom makes on it, Bowser disrupts the activities, causes the comet to break up and disperse, and, of course, kidnaps Princess Peach. Kersti, a steward of sorts for the now-scattered Royal Stickers contained within the comet, appears before Mario and immediately blames him for the chaos. When he sets her straight, she doesn’t believe him, but changes her tune after he offers to help her find the Royal Stickers. From the very beginning, she is an ingratiating, pushy, judgmental presence in the game, and, aside from her many neutral moments, is more annoying than any other friendly character from previous Mario RPGs.

So, right away, we have Mario and the self-appointed Nagging Sticker Mom going off on their quest. After dealing with their town’s destruction, the Toads are startlingly nonplussed about their Princess being kidnapped; she is pretty much never mentioned by any of them until near the end of the game. As for the rest of the game’s characters, Peach is mostly just a goal to reach, Luigi is reduced to a background element (literally), Yoshi appears only as a sphinx, and Bowser doesn’t even speak. Recurring flunky Kamek plays a role, as do Bowser Jr., a Wiggler, a Snifit, and a few of the Toads, but that’s about it for the cast. It’s as bare-bones an ensemble as there has ever been in these games.

<i>Paper Mario: Sticker Star</i>'s Fan sticker in action.The quest itself starts off well enough. The battle system is basically the same as in the other games, with the core attacks involving jumping or hammering, and bonus damage for getting the timing right. However, the twist this time is that all of Mario’s moves—attacking, healing, whatever—can only be pulled off by using a corresponding sticker. There are limits to the number of stickers that can be carried at any given time (these inventory limits are expanded during certain special events, such as when a Royal Sticker is collected), and some special stickers are bigger than others, which means that space management is a huge factor in getting through the game. Aside from your typical stickers which can be picked up at stores or on the field, there are also special ones made from “Things”, which are non-paper, three-dimensional objects that appear throughout the land. Once turned into stickers, these Things can carry out elaborate super moves, much like summon creatures in other JRPGs (my personal favorite is the Soda). Of course, there are limitations when it comes to these Thing Stickers—for starters, they don’t have in-menu descriptions like regular stickers—but this isn’t a problem most of the time.

However, some of the puzzles and other situations that require stickers can be surprisingly tough to figure out. This is especially true of the boss battles, where it is far too easy to lose because you used up all your stickers and the enemy is still alive. Conditional battles, such as many of those against bosses, are nothing new in JRPGs, but when one is completely reliant on items and inventory limits to fight them, that’s when problems arise. Sometimes, if you’re lucky and pace your attacks right, Kersti will appear and maybe even drop a hint.

One of the most convoluted puzzles in the game involves a giant Chain Chomp. It’s obvious that the goal is to guide the Chomp to a specific place, but every time Mario gets within range of it, a battle is triggered. Keep in mind that all Chain Chomps are invincible in Sticker Star, and thus, attack items are, for the most part, useless. The solution to this problem is a lengthy six-step process which I had amazingly somehow figured out myself over the course of much trial and error, though it was less of an “Ah-hah!” moment and more of a “Finally” one. Given how the whole scene is set up, it shouldn’t have been hard to craft a simpler puzzle that gave the same results, but instead, one has to execute a clunky solution for which only the barest hints had been given in advance.

"Paperization" in <i>Sticker Star</i>, using a Scrap.Aside from the sticker puzzles and boss battles, the levels are standard Paper Mario fare at their best—which is the majority of the time—and minor annoyances at their worst. The puzzles which require not stickers but “scraps” of the papery world tend to be both more sensible and interesting, and there’s the usual plethora of hidden areas and treasures to discover. Some levels are more entertaining than others, and most all of them encourage repeat visits. The levels are largely plot-free, but, unfortunately, the two areas that are story-heavy feature the most tedious bits of exploration in the game.

As for the more aesthetic frills, the writing (what little there is this time around) and localization is as witty as always, the music is pleasing and catchy, and the graphics look wonderful. Mario RPGs have always excelled in these categories, so these are just things to be expected.

Given my history with the previous Mario RPGs, I really wanted to love this one, but in the end, I just couldn’t. If this was another franchise, and another set of characters, Sticker Star may be seen as a great game with a few niggling issues, but this is Paper Mario, dammit, and as such, I expect a first-class experience. Part of me wonders if the reason that this installment is sub-par might be because Intelligent Systems wanted to devote more resources to Fire Emblem: Awakening and made Sticker Star less of a priority, but this is mere speculation on my part. As it stands, I know this developer can do better with this franchise, as it has in the past. Anyway, if you’re a fellow Mario RPG devotee, you might want to check this out, but keep in mind that it’s not as good as the previous games. For everyone else, I can safely say this is nonessential.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is now the only Mario RPG I’ve yet to play. Here’s hoping it’s better…

Quick Update

Sorry I haven’t posted lately, especially given that I’ve only just relaunched this blog recently; you can thank a big fanart project and the usual autumn sickness/sluggishness for much of that.

Anyway, I updated the Links page this evening. Amongst other links, I included all of my favorite screenshot Let’s Plays. Most of my top recs are fairly short, so if you have the time, check them out. Also, if you have a link you think I should add, let me know.

Finally, I’ve changed one or two things with the site itself on the technical end of things, but it’s nothing you all need to worry about :P

Dat New Mac Pro

I haven’t owned very many computers, but my first-gen, base-model Mac Pro Setzer has been the best of them. I got it back in October 2006 as a replacement for my aging Dell, Carbunkle, and still use it to this day. Setzer has helped me do all sorts of creative work, both freelance gigs and personal fan projects, and, built-in Ethernet ports notwithstanding, has never given me any major problems hardware-wise. In addition to OS X, it’s also been running Windows XP pretty much since I first got it, and has served me well for gaming.

Now, here in 2013, poor Setzer is getting on in years (for a computer). In general, my programs work fine, but at least one tool in Sketchbook Pro 6 lags a bit, and I constantly have to dial down the graphics settings for many current-gen games. Unfortunately, at the time when I started seriously considering either upgrading Setzer’s GPU or replacing the whole machine outright, the last new Pro that Apple had released was at least couple of years ago. Other Mac Pro users were in the same boat as I am, and Apple CEO Tim Cook assured us that we weren’t forgotten about. Then, this June, the new Pro was announced, and… it was different.

That keynote left me cautiously optimistic. The specs sounded great and the unusual design was interesting, plus it would be less of a space hog than the old G5s and Pros (it’s worth noting here that the other name I considered for Setzer was Umaro). However, it also looked less easy to customize—the original Pros are enormous in part because they’re so expandable. Also, there were no ports on the front of the thing, apparently no Nvidia card options, and once again… that design was weird. The one major detail left out of this sneak peek was the price, and it also happened to be the one thing left that I absolutely needed to know about this new machine.

Yesterday, there was a fresh new Apple keynote with a lot of announcements, including the base price for the Pro. Fortunately, this just reaches my personal limit, so chances are I will get one. However, upon considering how I’d actually use such a machine, more of the New Mac Pro’s limitations jumped out at me, with the biggest one being the lack of USB ports. There are only four USB 3 ports, while the still nascent (and expensive) Thunderbolt 2 gets six, and there’s no option to install a USB expansion card on this thing. On my current Pro, I typically have between four and five USB ports in use at any one time, and wouldn’t mind having more. Four ports means I’m definitely going to need some sort of USB hub.

Then there’s the hard drives. I want to reuse at least a couple of the drives I already have; there’s nothing wrong with them, they hold a lot, and sticking with them would save me quite a bit of time when I migrate to a new machine. However, on a New Mac Pro, that would mean using them externally, so I started looking at enclosures. The Thunderbolt ones are all ridiculously expensive, so I’ll probably go with a USB 3 solution of some sort.

I’ll also need an HDMI adapter for my monitor, though perhaps not, since I might already have one lying around somewhere; I’ve gotta check on that. Then there’s AppleCare, a copy of Windows 7, and… I think that’s it.

We’ll see what goes down once these New Mac Pros start shipping. I’ll probably check out some reviews once they do, and get a new desktop machine in January. Oh, and decide on a new name for the thing. My Air’s name is Celes, so if it is another Mac, then Locke, maybe? My Windows machines/partitions have used an FFVIII-based scheme, and after Carbunkle and Iguion, I’m really not sure what I would go with next.

Also, my older-than-my-Mac-Pro Wacom tablet seems to be a little flaky lately, but I have to run some tests with it to be sure that it’s the hardware and not something else. At least replacing that, should it come down to it, will be a much easier process.

Remarketing of Evangelion

One of the older, better-known Neon Genesis Evangelion-related fan projects out there is ToastyFrog Thumbnail Theatre, which, in addition to other properties, distills all 26 episodes of the original Eva TV series into snippets of snarky commentary. My favorite is the one for the famously controversial Episode 26. In this Thumbnail Theatre, main character Shinji is personified as series director Hideaki Anno, his mecha EVA-01 is Evangelion itself, and so on. As silly as it is, it also makes a whole lot of sense.

The Rebuild of Evangelion movies, the first one of which was released in 2007, and the fourth and final one due for sometime in the future, don’t have Thumbnail Theatres, since Jeremy Parish doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore, but if they did, I imagine they might start off a bit like this:

Shinji: I am 1996 Hideaki Anno, director of the recently-aired smash hit Neon Genesis Evangelion.
EVA-01: I am the Evangelion franchise.
Gendo: I am present-day Hideaki Anno, director of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies.

(Lots of Rebuild of Evangelion spoilers ahead; familiarity with the original Neon Genesis Evangelion is highly recommended.)

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