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The First Fantasy

My party fights in Final Fantasy. Originally posted via Twitter.

During my playthrough, I would sometimes post photos of the action on Twitter. Here, I marveled at how well Amano’s enemy designs were preserved.

When I played The Legend of Zelda back in 2011, it was my first hands-on experience with a game in that franchise. In a very different situation, I recently played through Final Fantasy, the debut title in a franchise which I am all too familiar with.

My first JRPG of any sort was Final Fantasy VII, and it remains my favorite, for sentimental and other reasons. I’ve beaten most of the others up through Final Fantasy X, including all of the Tactics and 3DS Theatrhythm spinoffs, a couple of the Chocobo ones, and two direct sequels, the fun and campy Final Fantasy X-2 and the truly dreadful Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII (on the plus side, at least a a very entertaining Let’s Play came out of it). I was the webmaster of the Final Fantasy VII Citadel for a time, and founded a few other FF fansites, some more successful than others. In other words, I spent the better part of a decade with Final Fantasy regularly on the brain. My interest started to decline around the time I gave up on the unwieldy Final Fantasy XII, and especially after leaving the webmaster post at the Citadel. However, I still like to dip my toes into the franchise every once in awhile, and my acquisition of an NES Classic earlier this summer gave me a good excuse to tackle the game that started it all.

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No One Stops

If you’re a regular reader, then you may recall that I absolutely loved the original NieR. Despite its many problems, most of which were gameplay-related, there was so much care put into the aesthetic sides of things that I came away with a new favorite. Its sequel, NieR:Automata, ably answers the question: what if the gameplay was just as good as the story, world, characters, and music?

As NieR maker cavia is long gone, development duties for Automata were handled by Platinum Games, the beloved studio known for its slick action titles. Some key talent from the ol’ NieR staff were involved as well, most notably director Yoko Taro and composer Keiichi Okabe. This turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, resulting in one of the finest JRPGs released in some time.

I didn’t play it on a console, however, but on a computer. As such, the first thing I did after installing Automata was patch it with FAR. This mod, which is short for “Fix Automata Resolution”, offers a number of graphical tweaks that publisher Square Enix couldn’t be bothered with, and I highly recommend it to anyone who chooses to play the PC version.

Anyway, on with the review. Upon starting the game, the very first sequence is a top-down shmup. Although there were a small number of similar sections in the first NieR, there are a lot more of them in Automata, largely thanks to flight units controlled by our android protagonists. From there, we move on foot to a string of fights mixed in with some light platforming. A crazy battle against a massive boss ensues, and then the game starts proper.

2B, 9S, and their Pods arrive in a ruined city, several thousand years in the future.The aforementioned androids are 2B and 9S, models made for fighting and intelligence gathering respectively, who work for an organization called YoRHa. It is 11,945 AD—some 8,500 years after the events of the first game, and nearly 7,000 years after aliens invaded the Earth with robotic “machine lifeforms” serving as their soldiers, sparking the first of over a dozen wars. Operating out of a space station called the Bunker, YoRHa sends its androids to the surface to do battle with the machines on behalf of the remnants of humanity, who reside on the Moon. I wish I could talk more about the story—which is grim yet fantastic—in this review, but, even with a spoiler warning given ahead of time, such discussion would make this post at least twice as long.

The aloof and logic-minded 2B is our primary playable character. Along with two melee weapons she can have equipped at a time, she comes with a small hovering robot, Pod 042, who provides ranged and special attacks. Her AI-controlled sidekick, 9S, is less cold, but quite a bit prejudiced when it comes to machines. Guided by Operator 6O, who provides support and instructions from the Bunker, 2B, 9S, and their Pods spend their time exploring the desolate, ruined world; taking on sidequests; and fighting the machines, who have started to evolve in unusual ways.

Both the flight unit and on-foot combat is smooth and satisfying. 2B can execute a slick dodge that recalls the one in Bayonetta, and the addition of regular ranged attacks thanks to the Pods adds a bit more variety than the first NieR had. 2B can be customized with upgradable chips that enhance offense, defense, speed, and other stats, or even grant convenient little abilities, such as being able to pick up items automatically. Special moves for the Pods can be swapped in and out as well.

One of dozens of sidequests in NieR:Automata.Outside of battle, there’s sidequests and fishing, both of which are much improved from NieR‘s iterations, though the latter is a bit more pointless this time. The sidequests have generally better rewards, often including hard-to-find crafting materials, and are not as headache-inducing as certain NieR quests I could name. These quests also frequently serve as mini-stories which help to flesh out the world, and range in tone from funny and uplifting to melancholy and depressing. Meanwhile, the fishing is Animal Crossing-style, using simple button presses to toss out your lure (or Pod, in this case), then reel it in when there’s a bite.

The overall story is as nihilistic as the previous NieR‘s, but thanks in large part to dozens of documents which can be found, it’s also easier to understand without having to run to an external resource. These documents are scattered all over the world, and most of them start to become available after the first ending is reached. On a related note, one thing I liked was that the weapon stories (a tradition in the Drakengard/NieR series) are in-game this time, rather than in a Japanese-only artbook, as was the case with NieR. These stories unlock piece by piece as a weapon is upgraded, and are often dark tales about a previous owner. Some of these tales even tie into the plots of the previous games, which is a welcome touch.

Speaking of which, there are a handful of other callbacks that crop up throughout Automata, including at least one that can be rather shocking to NieR players upon encountering it. A major difference between the two’s stories, however, is in how multiple endings are handled. Unlike in NieR, Automata‘s first major ending leaves out the biggest revelations; for those, one has to complete the next two loops. At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked this new arrangement, but it worked quite well in the end, with far less repetition in subsequent story loops than NieR had. There are even some new and newly fleshed-out gameplay mechanics after Ending A is reached—such as the return of NieR‘s visual novel segments—as well as some cheeky playing around with certain video game standards. Another change is in the number of endings: not only are there five related to the core plot, instead of four, but also twenty-one gag endings which trigger under certain conditions.

The shooting segments can be chaotic, but they're also a lot of fun.Visually, Automata is another step up from the striking but often muddy NieR. The character designs retain some ridiculousness—especially the fetishistic YoRHa androids—but are also just as memorable. In particular, the machine lifeforms strike a very effective balance between cute and menacing, with their beady eyes and mostly expressionless faces. The various areas, which include a ruined city, vast desert, and forest with gigantic trees, are likewise effective, though sometimes a little frustrating to get around; for example, though it seems like some of the empty buildings can be entered in certain spots, invisible walls block the way half the time.

Finally, there’s the music, which is once again one of the best game soundtracks of all time. Okabe is one of those rare video game composers who really knows how to take advantage of that most versatile of instruments: the human voice. The compositions themselves don’t slouch either, as is demonstrated by certain remixes which crop up starting from a specific point in the story.

I’m gladder than ever that I played NieR, as it gave me a good excuse to play NieR:Automata, a fantastic game in its own right. Most of the janky charm of the original is gone (most; as noted, there’s still an annoyance or two), but in the end, it’s for the better, and the story being told is as strange and complex as ever. If you’re sick of the same old thing in JRPGs, NieR:Automata is definitely worth playing.


New Year, New Manga

You might have noticed that I didn’t put together a “Manga Selections” roundup for this past year, like I did for 2016. This is mainly because so much of what was on that list would only be repeated. However, I’m considering doing one for 2018, as since then, I’ve finished—or am close to finishing—a handful of series.

That said, I’ve been itching to try some new stuff. This continues to be a great time for English-translated manga, with many new titles coming out on a regular basis. I recently tried a bunch, all of which made their English-language debut in 2017 or 2018, and have reviewed some of them below.

These reviews account for only about half of the new books I’ve read so far this year. Two of the others—the one-shot orange -future- and the first volume of the ongoing Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle—are continuations of previous series, and excellent ones at that. Another pair, the first volumes of Hatsune Miku: Future Delivery and Neon Genesis Evangelion: Legend of the Piko Piko Middle School Students, are middling media tie-ins. What remains in these reviews are the original titles, which have nothing carried over from previous manga series or franchises. Any one of them should be accessible for those looking for something new.

The Promised Neverland, vol. 1
Kaiu Shirai (story) and Posuka Demisu (art), Viz Media (Shonen Jump label)

The Promised Neverland, vol. 1Although it’s the newest critical darling from Weekly Shounen Jump, this series didn’t quite click with me. The premise, laid out in the first chapter, is solid: a group of kids at a lively, yet unsettlingly weird, orphanage accidentally discover the horrible truth about what happens to them when they leave for new homes. This truth is frightening and fantastical, and lends itself to many questions. However, the rest of the volume consists of plodding suspense and small, sometimes bland, revelations about the orphans’ circumstances.

The orphanage itself is mostly dull and it doesn’t help that the plot suggests that any true excitement lies beyond its borders, a world which we barely get a glimpse of. The three main characters, who strongly resemble the heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth in their personalities, make plans and toss off theories at a regular pace; however, there’s little that foils or contradicts them so far, which lessens the tension. Aside from the fact that this is a non-romantic Jump series with a female lead, the most interesting character is the orphans’ caretaker, whose side of the story is teased every now and again, making it clear that she knows much more than she’s letting on.

The Promised Neverland has clearly set itself up to be a slow-burn cat-and-mouse tale of mystery and escape, but neither the setting nor the cast are engaging enough to want me to get the next volume right away. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this series is that Posuka Demizu’s talents seem wasted here. I picked up her artbook, Pone, last summer, and her strongest works in that are detailed fantasy worlds filled with objects. She’s not as good with characters, but this is a very character-driven series. In a more suitable artist’s hands, perhaps I might’ve wound up liking this first volume more than I did.

If you want to check out The Promised Neverland for yourself, the first three chapters are currently available for free on Viz’s website.

Spirit Circle, vol. 1
Satoshi Mizukami, Seven Seas

Spirit Circle, vol. 1In a completely different turn of events from The Promised Neverland, I liked the first volume of Spirit Circle much more than I expected. The mangaka’s previous series, Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, was enjoyable enough, but going by this first volume alone, Spirit Circle is shaping up to be even better.

Middle-schooler Fuuta can see ghosts, a power which annoys him more than anything else. He is fascinated by the pretty new girl in school, Ishigami, who has a spirit companion named East. As it turns out, Ishigami has carried a serious grudge against Fuuta through several previous lives, which the latter begins to become aware of.

I haven’t read many stories about reincarnation, and, after reading some other reviews of this volume, was afraid that this one might be too complicated to follow, but my fears proved unfounded. This tale is expertly told, with the transitions between past and present handled smoothly. Also, the characters are extremely relatable and believable, which makes getting into the story that much easier. There’s not much more I want to say about this, in part because I don’t want to accidentally give something away, save for the fact that I can’t wait until the next volume.

Plum Crazy! Tales of a Tiger-Striped Cat, vol. 1
Natsumi Hoshino, Seven Seas

Plum Crazy!, vol. 1And now we’re back to a series that I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did. Plum Crazy! is a slice of life cat manga that is currently up to an astounding seventeen volumes in Japan. However, even with the cat-centric premise, it turns out that I am still rather picky when it comes to the slice of life genre.

In this series, a cat named Plum lives with an ordinary high school student and his airheaded dance teacher mother. One day, Plum finds and rescues a tiny kitten, whom the family later names Snowball. However, this kitten does not get along with Plum much at all. In fact, Snowball has a habit of biting Plum to relieve stress.

So, we have two cats—one cute but dour, and one cute but bratty—and a small cast of mildly amusing humans. Their misadventures include one where Plum follows the son to school, and another where Snowball starts chewing on wool clothing. These stories are okay, but don’t have that special spark that is required for the best slice of life manga. On top of that, I have mixed feelings about how Plum and Snowball sometimes test the boundaries of “real” cat behavior, mainly in their interactions with their human companions. Overall, this first volume was an enjoyable read, but I don’t see any compelling reason to continue.

My Brother’s Husband, vol. 1 (omnibus ed.)
Gengoroh Tagame, Pantheon

My Brother's Husband, vol. 1The most recent first volume I read turned out to be the best of the bunch. My Brother’s Husband is an intimate, heart-wrenching snapshot of LGBT life in Japan, and is masterfully crafted to boot. The story starts when a single father, Yaichi, receives an unusual houseguest: a Canadian named Mike whom he’s meeting for the first time. Mike is the widow of Yaichi’s twin brother, Ryoji, who had recently died back in Canada. He stays with Yaichi and his young daughter Kana, getting to know both them and the town that Ryoji had left behind.

Yaichi clearly has mixed feelings about Mike, and the late Ryoji, and wrestles with them throughout the volume. He does his best to be a good host, but has trouble fully accepting Mike, and, as a result, starts to reexamine his relationship to his twin. Kana, on the other hand, does not share her dad’s ingrained prejudices, and loves that she has a Canadian uncle (in part because “Canada” sounds a little like “Kana”). As the story goes on, other characters start to appear, some more accepting of Mike than others. Meanwhile, Mike’s visit doubles as a mourning process for him, and through certain sad scenes, the reader gets a real sense of how much Ryoji meant to him.

Tagame has been creating manga for decades, and it shows. The artwork is crisp and expressive, and the panels flow together smoothly, with a deliberate pacing that’s appropriate for this sort of real-life drama. Pantheon’s presentation—a Chip Kidd-designed hardcover with dust jacket—is suitably outstanding. This first book collects volumes one and two of the Japanese edition, and the second and final omnibus is due out in September of this year. It may be worth it to wait until then to pick up both volumes, but at the same time, this is exactly the sort of high-quality, groundbreaking manga that should be supported. Either way, My Brother’s Husband is well worth reading.


Braincrumbs: Weekend Indies and Promos

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 small break in the action in Shovel Knight.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.

Strange Journee-ho:
Shin Megami Tensei: Synchronicity Prologue (2017, ladybug, Windows)

The Jack team in Synchronicity Prologue's first area.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)

Yep, it's Picross. Source image from Pure Nintendo (purenintendo.com).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 account, this is merely an okay Picross release.

Spelunking… for America:
Shadow Complex Remastered (2015, ChAIR Entertainment, Windows)

Yep, it's a "core" game from the past ten years.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)

Swingin' for acorns. Source image from Moby Games (mobygames.com).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.


Thievery Stimulation

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.

Persona 5's Velvet Room.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.

A typical battle. Note the snazzy menu.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.

Shibuya's Central Street.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.


Braincrumbs: Super Legend of Indies

We got back from a long, relaxing weekend jaunt yesterday, and although I didn’t touch any games other than a few Picross 3D Round 2 puzzles (which I really shouldn’t have done; I was dead tired), my husband did get back into The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, including a frustrating boss battle near the end of the evening’s session.

He has a love-hate relationship with the main Zelda series, much as I do with the main Mario one. It wasn’t all that long ago that I gave up on Super Mario Galaxy 2 (and, by extension, my husband as well, since he was in the “co-star” role), thanks to a badly-implemented 3D camera and a “helper” feature that felt more like cheating or the game taking pity on me than anything else. Perhaps more crucially, Galaxy 2 started feeling more like an obligation than something fun. Experiences like that are why I largely stick to the kart racers and RPGs when it comes to anything involving Mario. As for Zelda, well, it may be a long time before Breath of the Wild or any other new-to-us 3D entry in that series comes into this household. I will likely continue on with the rare 2D Zelda, but certain archaic quirks of the 3D ones continues to baffle both my husband as a player and myself as a spectator. The lag we’ve probably suffered with and the frequently convoluted and/or uncomfortable controls have also not helped these Wii games’ cases.

Anyway, on to this post’s mini-reviews. I recently played through three short indie PC games, none of which is quite like the other. The first is a pop-culture-laden pixel-art RPG, the second is a 3D moe action-platformer, and the third is an arty 2D puzzle-platformer.

Reference Materials:
Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition (2013, Behold Studios)

Knights of Pen and Paper +1 EditionThis is one of a few games I received last year by trading Steam keys, and was not one that I’d ever had on any wishlist. Still, after looking up some info, Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition sounded interesting enough, so I completed the trade and added it to my library. In the end, it proved itself to be not a bad little game at all.

The premise is fairly simple: a pen and paper role-playing game is played out amidst the fantasy backdrops described by the dungeon master, complete with JRPG-style turn-based battling. Like far too many indie games with pixel graphics, there’s a ton of pop-culture references, but they’re easier to tolerate given that the story begins with a group of regular people in the “real” world. On top of that, while several references range from predictable (Doctor Who‘s Tardis) to insufferable (Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s Knights of Ni), some are unexpected and even enjoyable; for example, though I disliked Chrono Cross, I appreciated KoPP‘s take on one of its most annoying elements.

The story itself is your standard JRPG fare with an appropriate twist or two, though told with a sometimes clunky English localization (Behold Studios is based in Brazil). The game also doesn’t explain some of its mechanics very well, if at all. On the plus side, the battle system is solid, with some nice variety between classes, and the difficulty curve is decent, though I did find myself having to grind a bit in one of the earlier sections. Aside from the inspired setting, it’s not a particularly remarkable game, but it is fun.

Speedy Angel:
Angel Express (2008, EasyGameStation [via English ver., 2016])

Angel ExpressSpeaking of clunky localizations, Angel Express, also known as Tokkyu Tenshi, suffers a bit in its own way. During cutscenes with the player-named protagonist and her spirit partner El, there are often lines which seem like they should be said by the other character. This makes for some very odd dialogue at times, though most of the cutscenes are incidental and the core story is simple enough to follow. It’s worth noting that Angel Express is the first English-translated game by Japanese doujinsoft circle EasyGameStation not to have been localized by Carpe Fulgur, and, unfortunately, publisher Rockin’ Android just doesn’t do as good of a job.

As for the game itself, Angel Express is a platformer with a racing theme attached: individual stages are obstacle courses which are run through thrice at a time, and usually with a time limit attached or other characters to out-score. In addition to the repetition of the stages themselves, to reach the end of the story means going through most of them multiple times—and happening upon certain cutscenes multiple times as well. The stages are generally well designed and fun to play, so I didn’t mind too much, but it was still somewhat disappointing that there wasn’t more variety. Oh, and Angel Express is extremely difficult on “Normal”, so much so that I couldn’t beat the second part of the first stage on that setting. I ended up restarting and playing through the whole rest of the game on Easy, which is no slouch either.

There are a few additional features and modes, including a level designer, time trials, and multiplayer, though I didn’t touch any of that. I did check out “Totten News”, an in-game newsletter for delivery girls that includes gameplay tips as well as fictional features one might find in a real-life periodical, like recipes and horoscopes. Unfortunately, the last issue of Totten News suffers from a bug which makes it unreadable, so I’ll likely never find out how its serialized story, about two sisters in an alternate world, ends.

A Tale of Two Kitties:
I and Me (2016, Wish Fang)

I and MeIncidentally, the last game in this Braincrumbs installment was also apparently made by a non-native English speaker, but has the best localization of the three, though one or two sections of text don’t linger on the screen long enough to read at a normal pace. The story being told here, though, is not as cheery as the previous two games’ are.

In I and Me, the player controls two identical black cats simultaneously, guiding them past hazards and lining them up perfectly so that they fit into a pair of picture frames somewhere else on the screen. It’s a lot like Toki Tori and similar character-based puzzle games, though controlling two characters like this requires a whole other set of skills, mainly a keen spatial awareness. It’s a challenging game, but fair, and the dozens of stages are cleverly designed.

As for the game’s tone, which I hinted at before, it is perhaps best described as melancholy. The story, such as it is, explores what it’s like to have “another self” in relation to being alone; the graphics make heavy use of black; and the music, much of it in the form of classical arrangements, complement the other moody elements very well. A handful of I and Me‘s Steam reviews describe it as “relaxing”, but it rarely fits that definition. Instead, it requires a bit of tolerance for a less colorful setting, as well as a certain degree of patience given the difficulty of a fair number of its puzzles.

Speaking of which, by the time I had gotten through about ninety percent of the levels, I and Me had finally gotten so hard that I skipped one of them. The next level happened to contain the credits. I still wonder if that specific level was the credits all along, or if some other sort of design was at work.

Some quick site business: It took a year, but I finally got rid of the “comments” links that were at the bottoms of posts on the main page.