Despite a nasty cold early in the month, January was fairly productive, gaming-wise. I started and beat seven games, both short and long, and started an eighth. That unfinished game is Etrian Odyssey V, the latest in Atlus’ cartographical dungeon-crawling series, which I had put off starting for a few months in order to focus on Holiday Card work. As of this writing, I’m close to the end of the first Stratum, and the difficulty is starting to feel more punishing. This is not to say that EOV is easier than past entries; I think I just had a good handle on what to expect from this series when I first stepped into this latest Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
One thing I’m really enjoying about EOV (besides the food-gathering and cooking, fantastic features which help cut down on trips back to town) is its back-to-basics approach. The previous two games in the main series introduced overworlds to explore between Strata, and in EOIV‘s case, I suspect that it was one reason why I was ultimately so bored with that game. EOV does away with such areas. Here, you’re in the labyrinth from the get-go, just like in the very first two games. While it’s a little odd to see this regression, it’s also quite refreshing. Hopefully, the game will continue to hold my attention as I ascend to new heights.
The first game I beat way at the beginning of January also involved dungeons. Fidel Dungeon Rescue, which is about a very good dog who sets out to save his kidnapped master, has its feet in both the turn-based dungeon crawler and environmental puzzler realms. Each room is a puzzle that can be solved in more ways that one, but the most optimal solutions have the greatest rewards, the best being the XP which helps Fidel level up, increasing his overall health. The game’s most prominent feature—and, at times, greatest obstacle—is the title character’s leash. Fidel’s leash drags behind him, leaving a trail of places you’ve been before, and can be quickly retracted to rewind time and try out a different set of steps. However, the catch is that no square can be touched more than once, which can lead to the leash feeling like a barrier if its placement gets in your way. It’s a simple but well-implemented system that, along with the generous time constraints and dungeon layouts, lends the game its challenge. Fidel took me a fair number of attempts to get through, and once I did, whole new sets of challenges appeared. I completed two of these before moving on.
Around the same time I started Fidel, I took up another, though very different, puzzle game: Alphabear: Hardcover Edition. This version is a “pay once” PC port of the mobile title Alphabear. To play, one has to arrange randomly-generated letter tiles into words, which are then assigned points based on each letter’s countdown timer as well as other factors, like which bears you equipped before starting that stage. Creating words eliminates the tiles used, which causes the bears around them to grow, leading to more points. Score enough points to gain new bears, level up existing ones, and or unlock the next stage. The entire scoring system is… rather complicated.
Despite its cute, whimsical aesthetic and inventive gameplay, Alphabear‘s challenges can spike in difficulty without warning, and some are just about impossible if you don’t have the right rare bears in your arsenal. This was my situation with Chapter 4-2, so I went back to some older stages to level up the bears I had; I also unlocked at least one new one. After I got through that stage, which took quite a long time, there were one or two other tough spots, but none nearly as bad. The difficulty balance and/or the rare/legendary bear drop rates clearly need some refinement, but apparently, the game’s progression was tweaked today, so perhaps this complaint is moot now. It’s also free to play this weekend on Steam, so you might want to give it a go.
Anyway, because of those headaches, Alphabear was actually the third game I beat this year, since 4-2 led me to setting it down for awhile. The second was Danmaku Unlimited 2, which is another mobile port, as it turns out. If the title didn’t already give it away, this game is a vertically-oriented bullet hell shooter. Thankfully, the difficulty balance was perfect. As a casual shmup fan, I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Steam. It’s a lot of fun and very well made; there’s not much else I could’ve asked for.
A few days before starting Danmaku Unlimited 2, I picked up my 3DS and, with some reservations, started Kirby Triple Deluxe, which would later become my fourth game beaten in 2018. I say “with some reservations” since I didn’t like the last Kirby I played and was sure that I had become burnt out on the series. Roughly two years later, I was relieved to discover that Kirby, especially the standard Kirby formula of enemy-chomping and ability-obtaining that returns in Triple Deluxe, is still something I can enjoy. In addition to being a straight-up solid Kirby game, this entry also features some nice callbacks to previous titles in the series. The endgame is also surprisingly lengthy and tough. Like with Danmaku Unlimited 2, there isn’t much else to say about Kirby Triple Deluxe except that it’s very, very good if you’re into this sort of thing.
Another platformer was next up: Thomas Was Alone, which I received in a CAG Steam key trade. It’s a straightforward, puzzley game where rectangles and squares of varying abilities have to be delivered to specific points, much like Fidel, I and Me, and many other games. Controlling these objects is a little fussy, but the puzzles are generally well designed, albeit varying wildly in difficulty at times. What’s different this time around is the narration. Each of the quadrilaterals is given a name, personality, and motivation, making what would otherwise be a well-designed but bog-standard game into one bristling with life. Some are full of themselves, some start out with a bit less confidence than they find later on, and some, like Thomas, are mainly just happy to have companions. This is one of those Indie Games That Everyone’s Played that I ignored for a long time, and it seems that that was a mistake. Fortunately, it’s now a mistake that’s been rectified.
Finally, in wrapping up the month, I began my delve into Tale of Tales’ oeuvre via a Steam bundle I picked up during the last Summer Sale. Using the studio’s MobyGames page as a guideline for the release order, I started off with the oldest title in the collection. This was The Graveyard, an extremely short interactive black comedy. At least, that was how I read it, given what happens after the player guides the one controllable character, an old woman, to sit on a bench. To spoil what happens next: a jaunty song about death plays and then, at some random point, the old woman dies. The player can get up from the bench and leave the graveyard before the latter happens, but both of the times I tried to wait to do so after the song ended, she died.
After that, I moved on to The Path. Inspired by the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood”, The Path has the player controlling one of six red-themed sisters, all with different ages and personalites, to their grandmother’s house. Stay on the path, and the game will decide you are a complete failure, and you’ll have to start over again. Leaving the path—and in doing so getting lost and discovering new things, including the Wolf—is how to succeed at the game. Each girl can go on their journey in any order you wish, and they each have a different, horrible experience at Grandmother’s House after encountering their own personal Wolves. It’s an ambitious art game thick with metaphor, but is clearly ahead of its time in how it incorporates gaming conventions. Rather than ignoring things like scores and stats, which a modern game of this sort might do, The Path includes them, and even relies on them to a certain extent. I’m not sure that this was an entirely appropriate choice except as a pisstake at more mainstream games’ expense. Other than that, I found The Path to be an interesting experience.
And that’s it for January! Next up, besides more Etrian Odyssey V, are the rest of that Tale of Tales bundle and who knows what else. I’ve started February in a healthier spot than I did January—both literally and figuratively—but I also need to whittle down the number of JRPGs in my backlog. Right now, I have no idea if February will end with as many games beaten. As usual, we shall see.
It’s time once again for my top ten games played this past year. Included with each selection is the developer/author, the platform it was played on, the year of release, and a bit about why I liked the game enough for it to make it on the list. I’ve also brought back the Honorable Mentions to highlight five games that didn’t quite make it, but are still noteworthy. So, without further ado…
• Glittermitten Grove – For its complex and quite funny journey through the land of More Than Just Fairies, despite an annoyance or two.
• Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon – For doing the 80s homage thing right, and a structure that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
• Pokemon Sun – For having a great story and some wonderful characters in a franchise not typically known for either.
• Space Invaders Extreme 2 – For being a worthy sequel to a fantastic game.
• Mountain – For its whimsy and frequent moments of beauty and joy.
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below Omega Force | Windows | 2015
This Dynasty Warriors crossover/spinoff started off as a guilty pleasure, but ended up being a genuinely good game, especially if you love the Dragon Quest series as much as I do. Aside from the tons of DQ fanservice present in everything from the playable characters to the numbers that pop out of attacked monsters’ heads, there’s a lot of fun to be had in running around grassy fields and dark dungeons swinging a sword at dozens of enemies. The gameplay isn’t very complex, nor is the story, but both are peppered with enough DQ staples to keep things interesting, and the latter in particular works well enough to be satisfying.
Persona 5 Atlus | PlayStation 3 | 2017
Despite its issues—the predictability of much of the story, the hypocritical treatment of Ann, the tired and offensive stereotypes, certain bits of repetition, the odd pacing problem—Persona 5 may be the slickest game Atlus has made to date. Sure, the Phantom Thieves’ tale wasn’t perfect, but it did feature some great arcs (such as nearly everything involving Sae or Sojiro) and fantastic dungeon crawling, plus a superb final act which manages to contain some genuine surprises. On the aesthetic side, the distinctive character models, eye-popping user interfaces, and Shibuya-worthy score lend the game an irresistible stylishness.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords Infinite Interactive | Windows | 2007
This match-three puzzle and fantasy RPG crossover was the most addictive game I played all year. The story is nothing special, but the RPG mechanics are made to fit into its puzzle trappings in inventive ways, the main one being the different types of mana that can be stockpiled via color matching and used for special moves. There’s an impressive amount of customization, a massive map, and tons to do and see. By the time I had finished, I’d hit the level cap and had exhausted all of my companions’ stores of sidequests.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call indieszero | 3DS | 2014
The first Theatrhythm was already a burst of Final Fantasy musical goodness, but this follow-up manages to improve on that even further, with an expanded selection of music (including tracks from spinoff titles like Tactics and Crystal Chronicles), new gameplay modes—most notably a quest system that strings together sequences of tunes—and many more characters. Perhaps the best part is that the core gameplay is as tight as ever, though Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Final Fantasy XII compositions aren’t as well-suited to a rhythm game as most of the rest. Either way, it was difficult not to wear a smile on my face while playing this.
NotGTAV NotGames | Windows | 2015
The first thing you should know about this game is that it is not Grand Theft Auto V, a fact that to this day confuses many, many people who post in its official Steam forums. The second is that NotGTAV is a Snake variant that is filled to the brim with British humour. Playing in turn as Welshman Daffyd, chav Darren, and (now-former) Prime Minister David, missions run the gamut, from running over campers with a lawnmower to steering your motorcade past protesters. It’s a simple, short game with a satirical heart, and as an added bonus, all profits from its sale goes to charity.
SteamWorld Dig Image & Form | Windows | 2013
Above all else, I found SteamWorld Dig to be relaxing. In between purchasing upgrades and solving puzzles, digging up ores, new paths, and other interesting things was a routine that proved to be as soothing as maintaining a farm in Harvest Moon. All of this takes place within a charming steampunk western world that’s quite pleasing to the eye. My one major complaint about this game is that it was over all too quickly, but fortunately, it seems like SteamWorld Dig 2 addresses this issue and then some. I can’t wait to delve into that one.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Nintendo | Switch | 2017
This welcome port of the WiiU’s Mario Kart 8 and all of its DLC (even those weird Mercedes tie-in karts) is also one of the best in the series. In addition to great new tracks like Electrodrome, Cloudtop Cruise, and a few homages to Excitebike and F-Zero, the selection of classics is tough to beat, with the highlight being a steampunky take on Mario Kart 64‘s Rainbow Road. Speaking of which, the newest Rainbow Road is a rare disappointment, plus there’s always the one classic course you wish was there but isn’t (Coconut Mall in my case), but these aren’t deal-breakers. Finally, I must note that the 200cc difficulty mode is absolutely bonkers.
Third Place Picross 3D Round 2 HAL Laboratory | 3DS | 2016
The original Picross 3D was my introduction to the Picross franchise; it was an sometimes tricky puzzle game that I played the hell out of. Picross 3D Round 2 goes beyond just being a fresh offering of puzzles and works in a new twist: two different types of blocks (resulting in either cubes or non-cube shapes) that not only enable more interesting, aesthetically pleasing forms, but a whole new way to unveil them, with color coded clues and markers. This was intimidating at first, but the learning curve is as smooth as it’s ever been in this series; once I got the hang of things, all I needed to concern myself with was the puzzles themselves. A wonderful travel game, and just plain great in general.
Second Place Road Not Taken Spry Fox | Windows | 2014
An unlikely pairing of two of my favorite genres—roguelikes and tile-matching puzzle games—should not work as well as it does in this game. The premise is fairy tale-esque: the player character is a ranger who, every winter, is called upon to save children who get lost in a haunted forest while picking berries. The game ends when fifteen years have passed and the ranger dies. It is a much darker tale than it appears on the surface, and has some cynical things to say about children and their relationships to adults and the world around them. The game part is smartly designed, even with over a hundred items and many more matching combinations in its randomly-generated rooms, and can get quite challenging. There’s also a simple relationship system and special difficulty tweaks to round things out.
First Place: Game of the Year NieR cavia | Xbox 360 | 2010
The future world of NieR (or Nier, or NIER, or NieR Gestalt) is grey, brown, depressing (especially in the endgame and everything that follows afterward), hopeful, funny, annoying, charming, weird, heartwarming, and very difficult to leave behind for good. This action JRPG—with touches of bullet hell—has so many markers of imperfection and second-tier craftsmanship, particularly when it comes to the combat, and yet it is also filled with so much love. Homages to other franchises and even entire genres are largely enacted through mere changes in perspective, and the music and voice acting are top-notch.
None of those aesthetic touches would work without NieR‘s world-building and characters. The post-magic post-apocalypse setting is barely explained within the game, yet the details—such as old railroad bridges, tiny canister houses mounted on the walls of a canyon, and the black and gold word clouds that are the Shades—are so distinctive that it’s largely forgivable. Then there’s the cast: affable warrior dad Nier, the uppity and proud Weiss, thorny loner Kainé, and kindhearted, ingenuous Emil, plus a handful of others. Seeing them bicker, cry, and support each other in unexpected ways made some of the more unbelievable parts a bit more forgivable, and helped lessen the sting of the game’s obtuseness and other smaller frustrations.
“Labor of love” is a term that is bandied around a lot for certain games, but cavia’s swan song NieR is absolutely deserving of the phrase. It’s not too surprising that NieR became enough of a cult hit that not only it, but even its indirect predecessor Drakengard have continued on with sequels after cavia’s death. Speaking of which, NieR: Automata is on my shortlist for games I absolutely must play in 2018, and it’s an experience I’m really looking forward to.
Remember how, last year, I was unable to finish last year’s Holiday Card due to illness? After some treatment this year, I feel a bit better (though not completely well), and I picked up work on said Card again in the fall. This time around, I was able to complete my work. So, without further ado, this year’s (and technically last year’s) Holiday Card is General Princess!
For this third Holiday Card, I was inspired by something that feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian said in an interview: that she’d like to see a game where a captive princess rescues herself for a change. I’m paraphrasing here, as I can no longer find the exact quote, though I believe it was in the New York Times. Anyway, I somehow went from that to coming up with a plot where a princess keeps herself from being captured in the first place. The tower defense genre seemed like a natural fit for such a story, and so I began work last fall.
This time around, I used GameMaker:Studio, which I had picked up cheaply in a Humble Bundle. Coming from RPG Maker and Ren’py, it’s an intimidating program, but fortunately, there’s a wealth of information out there about its ins and outs, in the forms of ebook tutorials, the official forums, blog posts, and a Reddit page, amongst others. Other tools I used included the usual Sketchbook Pro, GarageBand, and Pixelmator, as well as Corel Painter and Audacity. In addition, Freesound, which I found via Sortingh.at, was helpful when it came to sound effects I couldn’t make myself.
General Princess can be found in the Projects section, as well as via the all-new Brainscraps itch.io page. And yes, my previous two Holiday Cards can now be found on itch.io as well.
As usual, please enjoy this latest jaunt into silliness, and Happy Holidays!
As usual, it’s been too long since my last post. Since then, I saw the rest of Nier‘s endings, rewatched the Utena movie, finished that Pile o’ Tezuka as well as three manga series that I’d been reading for awhile (My Love Story!!, Master Keaton, and Otherworld Barbara), and went on my first trip to Hawaii, among other things.
I’ve also been getting back into playing short games on the weekends. This time around, in addition to indies, I played a couple of promotional tie-in games, one of which was excellent for what basically amounted to an ad. Let’s get to discussing them all, shall we?
Digging and Derring-Do: Shovel Knight (2014, Yacht Club Games, Windows)
A disclaimer before I begin: the version of the game I have is Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, though this review is only for the main campaign. The other campaigns originally began life as free updates before the overall name change, but they’ve been put on the backburner for now.
Anyway, on with the review. When I first tried out Shovel Knight at PAX Prime one year, I was impressed by how much closer it hewed to the aesthetic of 8-bit games than other indie titles inspired by that era; the color palette and the insistence on showing single screens one at a time were its most memorable touches. After playing through the main campaign, it’s clear to me now that it’s not quite a true 8-bit throwback—I doubt it could run on a Nintendo Entertainment System without some further modifications—but it still plays as solidly as I remembered from that short session.
Some apparent inspirations for this platformer include Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Capcom’s DuckTales, but Shovel Knight has a bit of its own flavor as well. Though it’s not an easy game, it’s also not as difficult as any of those classics (especially the Capcom ones), and manages to be fair in its toughness. There are new abilities to collect throughout the game, though as best as I could tell, none are required to get through the main story. Speaking of which, one thing I really like is that it’s possible to go back to previous levels to grind for additional money to purchase those abilities and other upgrades. Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae’s soundtrack is delightful and catchy, but the story less so, consisting of a cloying plot involving an imprisoned knight (female, of course), whom the title character sets off to rescue.
The DS dungeon crawler Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is one of the better MegaTen spinoffs out there, and as it happens, a 3DS rerelease has recently come out in Japan. To promote this new version, Atlus published Synchronicity Prologue, a free metroidvania for Windows PCs set in Strange Journey‘s universe starring series mascot Jack Frost (luckily for us English-speakers, a fan translation patch for the dialogue soon followed). For a piece of promotional material, this game wound up being very, very good.
Like Strange Journey, Synchronicity Prologue takes place in Antarctica and deals with an anomaly there. As Jack Frost, the player teams up with Jack O’Lantern (aka Pyro Jack) to track down an antagonistic Black Frost. There’s a handful of familiar demons and callbacks to Strange Journey, and the story is fairly basic though a little confusing at times. The areas are huge and sprawling, filled with the usual metroidvania-style barriers to encourage later backtracking to get at various hidden upgrades, and the boss battles each have their own unique flavor. If you’re a fellow MegaTen fan, especially one who’s played Strange Journey, you’ll get a kick out of Synchronicity Prologue. However, be sure to download it soon; it’s only available until December 24th.
Hyrule Graphics: My Nintendo Picross: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2016, Jupiter, 3DS)
This is the other promotional game I played recently, though this time, it wasn’t exactly free. It cost me 1000 Platinum Points over at My Nintendo. As a Picross fan, it naturally caught my attention, so I saved those points and picked it up.
For those of you unfamiliar with Picross, it’s an excellent puzzle game series by Jupiter and Nintendo where you use number hints to fill in squares on a grid to create a picture. It has a bit of a learning curve, but each game in the series tends to come with a good tutorial and starts players off slowly with small puzzles before ramping up to the larger, more complex ones. This particular Picross release is themed around Twilight Princess, so the puzzles’ images include tools, characters, and locales from said game. It’s a relatively short entry at forty-five puzzles, but for a piece of promo material, it’s a got pretty decent amount of content.
I normally love the games in this series, and this one is very good as well, though I do have two gripes. First off, the tutorial is mandatory; you can’t even see the main puzzle menus until it’s completed. Secondly, the Mega Picross puzzles are the same images from the regular Picross mode, just presented in a different order and with more complex rules. While I’d normally be fine with this, these modes are presented in such a way as to suggest that they’re two completely separate sets of puzzles. With these issues taken into accunt, this is merely an okay Picross release.
Spelunking… for America: Shadow Complex Remastered (2015, ChAIR Entertainment, Windows)
And here’s our second metroidvania for this installment. I haven’t looked up how this version is “remastered”, but at any rate, it’s a multi-platform rerelease of the 2009 Xbox Live Arcade hit Shadow Complex, which I remember being sort of a big deal back then. It combines the 3D sci-fi/military aesthetic of your average big-budget Western title with a genre that doesn’t normally see games in this style. Once again, the story is simple, but is somewhat amusing in its extremes: a guy goes exploring a cave with a girl he just met and reluctantly gets caught up in trying to stop a conspiracy to take over the United States. In the meantime, he comes across various weapons, special equipment, and upgrades to help him explore a gigantic underground base.
One of the abilities he gets, a dashing move which enables him to crash through certain objects, is rather tricky to use, and largely because of that, I ended up passing on a handful of upgrades because I wasn’t really sure how to get to them with said move. However, the others are fairly straightforward, and include things like double-jumping and infinite underwater breathing. There’s also the matter of the map, which could use a little bit more information in regards to marking inaccessible areas for later backtracking; many areas get noted, but not all of them. The final battle is gimmicky and too easy on Normal difficulty, but otherwise, the combat is fairly satisfying. Despite these problems, this is a reasonably polished, though imperfect, action-adventure game.
Nuts for Nuts: Super Little Acorns 3D Turbo (2013, Team Pesky, 3DS)
Finally, here’s something else I picked up as a My Nintendo reward. As of this writing, it is still available for the low, low price of 60 Gold Points (and unlike the Zelda Picross game, it can also be found on the eShop). I had never heard of the game before Nintendo started this promotion, but it sounded like the sort of thing I would like, so I decided to go for it.
The basic plot is that a papa squirrel sets out to get back the acorns that were stolen from his family’s stash. He does this by collecting all the acorns strewn across seasonally-themed levels before the timer runs out, avoiding obstacles like bats, bugs, and water. He starts off with a basic run and jump, and later gains a rope to swing from specially designated points; there are also timed power-ups, for higher jumps and other effects, in various levels. Each season wraps up with a level where baby squirrels have to be collected in addition to acorns, and every one of the game’s three “years” has a boss battle at the end, which is actually more of a boss race. Additional goals are included in every level for completionists, and there are unlockable costume options and achievements as well.
Though it reminds me of games like Toki Tori, it is less puzzle-oriented, with the main problem in each level being how to find the fastest, most efficient route. It should also be noted that the platforming physics run on the slidier side, with the rope-swinging in particular taking an extra bit of getting used to. Aesthetically, it recalls a second-tier mobile game from the Angry Birds school of visual design. Not a bad little game, but not noteworthy, either.
I’ve been reading Osamu Tezuka manga the past few days; namely, a couple of the titles published by Digital Manga Publishing via one of their ever-present Kickstarters. Under the Air was the first; a seinen short story collection, it’s one of the better Tezuka books I’ve read in awhile. After finishing that, I started Melody of Iron, another anthology, but with a long title story (100+ pages) and few others, instead of many short tales. Though nowhere near the level that Vertical lavished on their Tezuka volumes, the localization and printing quality of these books is pretty good for DMP. However, after three backed Kickstarters, I may be done with buying new series from this company.
For several years now, DMP has had a reputation for turning to crowdfunding whenever it wants to print—or reprint—just about anything. Not only has this been the case for niche titles, which is understandable, but also reprints of their biggest hits. One prime example is the BL drama Finder, which is so popular that new volumes wouldoftenhit the New York Times’ manga bestseller lists back when they had them. Perhaps this overreliance on crowdfunding was a reason why Finder‘s Japanese publisher terminated its contract with DMP. Many of their readers haven’t been too happy with them either; their books tend to get delayed and often have unreasonably low print runs, and their lack of communication on classic manga Kickstarters leaves much to be desired (on the other hand, a BL Kickstarter of theirs that I backed—mainly for reprint add-ons—had timely updates and great communication overall, though I don’t know how they’ve been since). On top of all that, they have practically no distribution—it’s hard to get many of their books even through a manga specialist like Right Stuf—and it seems like a fair number of their former employees didn’t like the place, either. Although a handful of Tezuka fans have damn near succumbed to Stockholm syndrome when it comes to DMP, I sort of hope that Tezuka Productions’ deal with them is the next one to be terminated.
Anyway, back to the manga itself: as is customary for most all Tezuka printed in English these days, there is a disclaimer at the start of these anthologies that basically says that the depictions of various races in these works are products of their time, and that they should be seen as such. I would suggest to Tezuka Productions that they start mandating this sort of thing for gender depictions as well. Tezuka’s depictions of women are interesting at best but are more often problematic; Princess Knight and Message to Adolf have been some of the worst offenders for me, personally. The women in Melody of Iron (so far) and Under the Air are a bit more standard for Tezuka: not much more than love interests, wives, and/or relatives.
On a whole other end of the gender depiction spectrum, there’s the 1997 shoujo TV anime Revolutionary Girl Utena. This series, about a girl who was inspired to become a prince when she was younger, and the duels she finds herself embroiled in to win the hand of the “Rose Bride”, borrows heavily from both the magical girl genre and “girl prince” stories like The Rose of Versailles and the aforementioned Princess Knight to create something new. I talked bitprophet into watching the first dozen or so episodes with me—the Student Council Arc—and fortunately, he was intrigued enough that we ended up going through the whole show. This was my second full viewing of the series, so I was mostly interested in catching little details I had missed the first time around. Turns out that there were many: Anthy’s smiles, the consistent theme of animals in the humorous “Nanami episodes”, various spoken lines, even more props and objects. It remains a dense, character-driven series that requires a patient soul to fully deconstruct. This is a series where even its greatest weakness—its relentless reliance on reused animation, and indeed, entire scenes—ends up working in its favor. It’s glamorous while adhering to a certain routine, a routine which could be subverted at any moment. It’s the high drama and messiness of adolescence whirling around its simultaneously bland and eccentric title character in a series of duels accented by a primitive CG castle and hard rock choral music with strange lyrics. There’s nothing else quite like it, and I’m glad I watched it again. As for the other versions of the Utena story, a rewatch of the movie is being planned, and I’d already reread both manga series earlier in the year, thanks in part to a gorgeous new box set.
And now, games! After beating Persona 5, I tried Wolfenstein: The New Order, but sadly found that it is not to my tastes, being a methodical shooter more in the vein of Call of Duty than the classic high-octane Wolfie I had been accustomed to. However, I found myself absorbed into Puzzle Quest, enchanted by Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, and mildly amused by Mountain. I also played a pair of mediocre sequels in the forms of Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero and Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, the latter of which was not nearly as bad as I’d been led to believe. There were also a few short Steam games—Quest of Dungeons and the two LostWinds adventures—which were okay. Then, there is the beautiful mess of Nier.
Nier is about a doting dad and his sickly daughter living in the far future of what is heavily implied to be our own world. It also stars a cynical magic talking book, a foul-mouthed huntress wearing the most ridiculous outfit in video games this side of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, and a sweet and dangerous boy. It’s considered to be one of the best works to come out of the late cavia inc., a studio that was generally known for average-to-bad games with crazy plots. All the best parts of Nier involve spoilers (or, at the very least, things worth discovering for yourself), and I’ve only played the first ending so far, so I’ll just say that cavia doesn’t disappoint and I’m sure there’s a lot more to come. In addition to its entertaining storytelling, Nier has a striking visual aesthetic that strongly recalls ICO and other Fumito Ueda games, a soundtrack that absolutely deserves its stellar reputation, and some excellent voice acting. However, it also has some janky animations, alternately fun and annoying combat, meh sidequests, forgettable farming, and bad fishing. It is not a great game, but at the same time, it is. Nier is a weird, wonderful exemplar of gaming’s B-tier and I’m looking forward to getting the rest of the endings, even the one which erases your save and prevents you from playing it again (well, at least with that one account…).
Aside from Nier, I’m currently playing NotGTAV, a crudely-drawn, humorous, and extremely British variant of Snake. I’m also playing my first Nintendo Switch game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. One of my greatest regrets in not ever getting a WiiU was missing out on Mario Kart 8, so I was delighted when this Switch port, which includes all the DLC, was first announced. It’s a damn good Mario Kart game, with an unbeatable spread of both new and old levels, including a great Bowser’s Castle, a pair of killer F-Zero-themed courses, and personal favorites such as Music Park and Grumble Volcano. My only real complaint so far is that the new Rainbow Road is somewhat underwhelming. It’s also still a little weird to see non-Mario-themed elements, like the characters Link and Isabelle (and those F-Zero tracks), in a Mario Kart. Otherwise, the little tweaks they’ve made are mostly great, and I’m having a good time. I’ve recently started the 150cc Grand Prix, after clearing 50 and 100cc, and will devote my attention to those courses whenever I’m not diving further into the craziness of Nier.
There were two unusual things I noticed about Persona 5 during the first hour or so of playing.
The first was that it started a little ways into the future, with a botched heist at a casino. The protagonist, who the player names when the police force him to sign a confession, is told that he was ratted out by one of his teammates and is later interrogated by a hard-nosed prosecutor while under the influence of a truth serum. It is this conversation which becomes the game proper, starting in early April of “20XX”. While betrayal isn’t unheard of in this series, it was a little jarring to be told straight off that one of my future party members isn’t to be trusted, and it led me to spending a bit of time winnowing down my personal list of suspects. Certain other aspects of the story proved to be predictable as well, though for different reasons; it wasn’t until some time after the tale caught up with “the present” of the interrogation that the game’s biggest surprises came to light.
The second was the Velvet Room, the metaphysical place “between dream and reality” where series protagonists craft new Personas from old ones. In Persona 3, the Velvet Room was a spacious, elegant elevator, constantly climbing upward. In Persona 4, it was the back seat of a stretch limousine, which drove forward on an etherial road. On the other hand, Persona 5‘s Velvet Room is static, a circular prison occupied by overseer Igor and this installment’s blue-clad attendants, the twin wardens Justine and Caroline. Igor doubled-down on the metaphysical metaphors by noting the protagonist’s mental imprisonment, and implying that he could be freed through “rehabilitation”. I found this situation—the Velvet Room’s traditional motion replaced by stasis—to be unusual at first, but it ended up feeling appropriate.
This rehab takes the form of fighting Shadows—manifestations of human personality and cognition—in a parallel world. This time around, it is called the Metaverse, which is filled with “Palaces” and is accessible to a chosen few via a mysterious smartphone app. Most of the Palaces are ruled over by a Shadow whose real-world counterpart has desires distorted enough to negatively affect the people around them, often in abusive ways. The protagonist and his fellow Phantom Thieves change not just their outfits while in the Metaverse (a nice touch that, for one, avoids the awkwardness of characters wearing winter school uniforms during summer vacation while exploring dungeons, as in the previous two games). They also change things for the better by stealing special Treasures—symbolic items representing hearts—from these Palaces, which collapse as a result and permanently alter their owners’ perceptions in the real world.
There’s much more to the rules and such governing the Metaverse, but those are the basics. The plot is dense, especially early on when the protagonist and schoolmate Ryuji meet Morgana, an amnesiac who is nevertheless intimately familiar with the Metaverse, for the first time. Morgana is this installment’s requisite Pinocchio figure; like Aigis and Teddie before him, he has a somewhat mysterious past and a deep-seated yearning for humanity. However, even though he’s a fun and interesting character, he is also the most unlikeable of the three. Perhaps because he takes the form of a cat, Morgana is a conceited, and sometimes childish, jerk at times.
The rest of the Phantom Thieves crew is made up of a bunch of outcasts, which includes the protagonist. All formerly conformist misfits who don’t quite fit in because of who they are, and victims of selfish, powerful adults, the Phantom Thieves earn their Personas by embracing rebellion, which fit this theme through their appearances as inspired by fictional outlaws (Arsene [based on Arsene Lupin], Zorro) and larger-than-life historical figures (Captain Kidd, Johanna [based on Pope Joan]). The implementation of this theme, as well as the inconsistent seven deadly sins one which is prevalent throughout the game, is kind of goofy, but I mostly got used to it. Like its predecessor, Persona 5 has a lot to say about the role of the media in society and how the seemingly innocuous, everyday views of the general public can further shape which direction it takes. However, it is a much darker tale, with highly-motivated villains and several instances of Very Bad Things, some potentially triggering, happening to the main cast and/or their associates. There’s also the usual range of MegaTen demons for the protagonist, who bears the “wild card”, to collect and use. This time around, Shin Megami Tensei’s oft-dreaded demon conversation system is how one obtains new Personas. I had mixed feelings about this design choice going in, but certain abilities that can be obtained throughout the game ended up making this process a bit less painful than it has generally been in the past.
Speaking of those abilities, I got them and others by nurturing relationships with Confidants, Persona 5‘s version of Social Links. Each Confidant has a distinct set of abilities that can be obtained, along with the usual Persona Fusion stat bonuses and unlocks, depending on who they are. For example, spending time with a politician named Yoshida leads to special conversational abilities which make negotiating with Shadows easier and/or more profitable. Even some social stats, like Kindness and Proficiency, can be improved through certain interactions, which is a welcome addition. There’s a more unusual and diverse range of Confidants in this installment, including shopkeepers and even residents of the Velvet Room. However, there is also a certain Confidant whose story can’t be advanced until after a certain point in the main tale—and the game doesn’t warn you about this. Aside from this problematic design flaw, plus a certain basic sameness between many Confidants that becomes apparent as the game wears on, the overall relationship system is as polished as it has ever been in a Persona game.
The other core component of Persona 5 is, of course, the dungeon-crawling and Shadow-battling. The Palaces where the Phantom Thieves do their work are wonderfully designed—easily amongst the best levels Atlus has ever made, in any of their RPGs. While there are some repetitive elements—particularly in the randomly-generated “Palace of the Public” Mementos—there are also many unique spaces, both large and small, and a wide range of thematic differences between each dungeon. The battling is the same reliable system from Persona 4, complete with All-Out Attacks, but there are a few new tweaks, among my favorites being Bless and Curse spells that don’t instantly kill and are almost always guaranteed to work. Different this time around is an overwhelming number of types of items, particularly for healing HP, and many of which will go unused.
That leads me to the main menu, which any player will undoubtedly spend a lot of time in. Like much of the rest of the game’s trimmings, the menus are in stark black, white, and red, with manga-esque character art and typography inspired by cut-and-paste ransom notes. They are gorgeous to look at, with slick little animations between the main menu and its subsections, and neatly organized, too. There’s also a separate (and just as stylized) menu for text messages, which the protagonist receives on an daily basis and are helpful for both plot-related reasons and for keeping up with Confidants; a robust fast-travel system; and the ability to save just about anywhere while out and about in everyday life.
As for the previously-mentioned amount of items, a large part of that is thanks to a crafting system to make tools such as lockpicks, as well as another one to duplicate cards which can be used to teach skills to Personas. There’s also treasure items which can be sold for cash, key items such as Palace maps, books, gifts, and as mentioned before, a lot of HP healers. Many of the HP, SP, and status effect curatives can be bought at a variety of shops, including a supermarket, a pharmacy, a discount store, a convenience store, a train station kiosk, and several vending machines, and some are only available for a limited time.
If this sounds overwhelming, it is (and you will want to ignore the vast majority of those items), but it is also reflective of its setting: Tokyo, including the real-life districts of Aoyama-Ichome, Shibuya, and many others which become available later on. Persona 5 is overwhelming in both its shopping choices and activities for beefing up social stats, but this is because Tokyo is overwhelming. Notably, some of the shops present in the game are parodies of real-life chains such as Don Quijote, 7-Eleven, and Tsutaya, while the odd bits of actual product placement by the likes of HMV and Calbee blend into the setting fairly well. In these aspects, Persona 5 has captured the consumerist chaos of the Tokyo metro area perfectly, and feels even truer to life than it would have otherwise.
All this is presented with crisp and colorful graphics which straddle the lines between painterly, typical of a modern-day “anime” game, and the MegaTen series’ traditional flat style. As mentioned before, the dungeons have been handled with care, and the same is true of the named characters, Shadows, and Personas. Some character models, like the sparkly and snowy Jack Frost, even have an extra bit of textural oomph to them. Design-wise it’s excellent, with the notable exception of Ann; given that her story arc focused on sexual harassment, and her dislike of being put into perverse situations in general, her skin-tight and boob-windowed Phantom Thief outfit is in questionable taste. A few scenes appeared to push my PS3 to its limit, which resulted in some audio hiccups. While I’m on that topic, the voice acting was average—not amazing, but generally not bad, either. This is especially true of the handful of traditionally animated cutscenes, where the dub cast clearly tries to match lip flaps as closely as possible. As for the localized script, it has a handful of corny and awkwardly-written moments, but is otherwise very good.
Finally, I must mention the wonderful, wonderful music. Fellow fans of composer Shoji Meguro will recognize his signature style all over the soundtrack, especially his love of electric organ and sometimes distracting English-language vocals. However, the soundtrack is particularly lovely in that it captures some of the essence of Shibuya-kei, the diverse musical movement which originated in the real-life version of one of Persona 5‘s most important locations. I already own the soundtrack and it’s currently living with my other game music, but perhaps I should place it next to my Pizzicato 5 and Fantastic Plastic Machine albums instead.
The long wait for this game’s release has been worth it. Despite its flaws—including others I’ve not mentioned here, such as Atlus’ continued use of gross gay stereotypes; more to do with less time, thanks to frequent story events; and a certain rushed-feeling story arc and new character introduction—Persona 5 makes for an outstanding addition to any JRPG fan’s library. It has a darker story than its predecessors, a fascinating and well-realized cast of characters, and the most stylish visual and aural trappings you’ll see and hear in any game this year. If you somehow haven’t played this yet, it is not to be missed.
Special Stage: Back in May, Anime News Network posted an interesting feature article titled “The Real Japan Behind Persona 5” which discusses the likely inspirations behind certain story events. Note that it contains spoilers for the whole game, and especially the first and fifth major story arcs.