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 Quixote, 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.
Persona 5 has been great so far. The music and user interfaces are cool in a way that’s rare for other games. It also plays well, despite the inclusion of a Demon Negotiation system, aka the MegaTen series’ most tedious idea. As for the story, it has the expected combo of strong characterization and shock value, this time around with themes of obedience versus defiance. I’m currently more than thirty-six hours in, but given how much time I spent with the previous two games, there’s still a lot more to come.
Aside from that, I finally beat Pokemon Sun, though this victory was bittersweet. My team wasn’t quite in the shape I wanted it to be—my Decidueye and Solgaleo were a few levels above the others—but, not wanting to throw a match during my first attempt at the endgame battles, I continued on and became the Champion.
Though Pokemon Sun was great for the most part, there were a few lackluster elements. The story, themed around local traditions and wildlife conservation, started off slowly and with several dialogue-heavy cutscenes. However, by the time things picked up, this tale had become one of the best in the entire series. On a related note, Sun certainly has one of the better casts of characters in the world of Pokemon, with the goofy and energetic Professor Kukui and Team Skull’s underdog leader Guzma being two highlights. However, the most important cast member is Lillie, a somewhat timid girl who is neither a fellow Trainer nor someone particularly interested in Pokemon research, like most of the companions in the previous games. She journeys with a Pokemon called Cosmog, nicknamed “Nebby”, in the hopes of getting it home, and their journey frequently crosses paths with yours. By the time the story reaches its crescendo, however, both Lillie and Cosmog have taken on much larger roles; Pokemon Sun ends up being just as much about them as it is about the player.
Much else about the game is praise-worthy. The Hawaii-inspired Alola region is a nice change-of-pace after the staid Kalos from the previous gen, and the hip-hop misfits of Team Skull eventually became my favorite antagonistic group in the series. On the gameplay side, many of the traditional Pokemon trappings got an overhaul in Sun and Moon, and I feel that at least two of them could be worth holding on to for future installments. The first are the move-enhancing Z-Crystals, which replace the Badges won at certain points in the games, though certain types can also be obtained through other means. The second is the Ride Pokemon system, which replaces HMs, those moves that can be used out and about in the world to get to new areas. The Z-Crystals feel less like mere markers and more like useful prizes than the Badges ever did; plus it’s fun to see the Ride Pokemon in action, and freeing not to have to rely so much on specific Pokemon types to use HM moves.
As I implied before, Pokemon Sun isn’t perfect. Certain story-required battles are too repetitive, most of the Island Challenges are shorter and lack the puzzle-oriented fun of the old-style Gyms, and the endgame is bare-bones, even though this can be excused by certain quirks of the storytelling. It’s also a technically-demanding game, with some of the more intense moments slowing things down on my “old” 3DS XL. Still, I found it to be better than Pokemon X in a handful of ways, and maybe even one of the best games in the main series.
Besides Pokemon Sun, I beat a handful of other games since the beginning of March. The first of these was “Episode P4” in the Story mode of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, which I soon followed up with “Episode P3”. These two stories conclude the tale from the first Persona 4 Arena, but are a bit more underwhelming as well. Aside from the weird addition of Rise, the new playable characters featured in this mode are all fine, but both stories are hampered not only by sub-par plotting, but also a tough-for-toughness’-sake (but thankfully skippable) final battle. Sadly, this is the sort of direct sequel that might be better served by seeking out a Let’s Play.
Next was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, the one game I claimed for free during Ubisoft’s 30th Anniversary celebration. I play open-world games very rarely and had no experience in the Far Cry series before, but found this to be all right. Taking over bases and hunting down collectibles feels a bit like busywork, the world lacks distinctive landmarks, and the graphics are a bit too dark in their most aesthetically-pleasing form. However, the missions are generally fun and story is funny and inspired—it’s an ’80s homage done right, capturing the feel of the era while only rarely breaking out specific pop-culture references. As a standalone bit of fluff, it got the job done. I’m glad I played it, though I’m also fine with taking another long break from open-world games after this.
My third game beaten in March was Quantum Conundrum, a first-person environmental puzzler and one of the hardest such games I’ve ever played. Many of the puzzles, which involve moving between two or more dimensions to alter attributes like mass or gravity, feature some strict time constraints, involve several steps one right after the other, leave the player subject to the whims of the game’s physics engine, and/or are difficult, if not impossible, to solve on the first try. Despite the game’s polish in other areas, the puzzles aren’t as well crafted as in Creative Director Kim Swift’s most famous previous work, Portal. I really wish I could’ve liked this one more. After beating the main game and the dastardly DLC “The Desmond Debacle”, I managed to get a third of the way done with the even tougher second DLC, “IKE-aramba!”, before setting it down in favor of something else.
That something else ended up being Imperium Romanum: Gold Edition, another freebie from a publisher celebrating an anniversary. This one came courtesy of Kalypso, who sent codes out to their mailing list subscribers when they turned ten years old last summer. Our gift was a Roman-themed city builder by Haemimont Games, who later went on to make the modern Tropico titles. Imperium Romanum is a bit more dated than those, with somewhat clunky interfaces and just a smidge too little information about my settlements and their people. On top of that, some of the campaign scenarios were rather difficult, especially when fighting barbarians or other Romans(!) was involved. It’s not a bad city builder by any means, but there are several better ones out there.
And that’s it! I will probably start something new to break up things with Persona 5, though I’m not sure what yet. I’m a little behind on my Mario RPGs, but I’m also starting to get a match-three itch, so the next game could be either Mario & Luigi: Dream Team or Puzzle & Dragons Z. At any rate, I have to whittle down the JRPGs in my backlog.
As far as beating games goes, this has been shaping up to be a somewhat productive summer. I’ve beaten seven games and two DLCs/expansions since my previous post, including a few titles I obtained during Steam’s annual Summer Sale. Right now, my biggest pickup from that sale, the much-lauded 2016 version of Doom, is sitting on one of my hard drives, having been freshly downloaded from Steam’s servers this past Tuesday.
Doom 2016 is one of my very rare triple-A indulgences, and a graphical beast; even on the lowest settings, the demo looked fantastic. There’s tons of options to tweak, as one would expect of a game from a storied PC developer like id Software, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the game itself will run on my (admittedly) offbeat PC gaming hardware of choice, a 2013 Mac Pro running Boot Camp. My little taste of it back in June was quite delicious, with a red-drenched palette and hints of the sort of over-the-top badassery one expects from the Doom franchise.
Before I could start Doom 2016, and after beating Doom II back in early May, I finished my tour of the older id-crafted parts of the franchise with Doom 3 and its companion pieces, “Resurrection of Evil” and the BFG Edition-exclusive “Lost Mission”. Doom 3 did well when it came to the look and feel of the weapons and enemies, but atmospherically, it was, for the most part, not Doom. The story took itself a bit more seriously than it had in Doom and Doom II—even the difficulty setting names were straight-laced—and on top of that, the shadowy environments and heavy emphasis on sound effects lent the game more of a horror feel, rather than the goofy action movie style I was used to (given this situation, the famed flashlight controversy is especially interesting). It was sort of like a scarier, less puzzley, and less wry Half-Life set in the Doomiverse. That’s not to say there weren’t any funny or adrenaline-pumping moments—there most certainly were—but Doom 3 stands out a little as an odd duck. It was a fun game, though, especially the last third or so, which includes the requisite trip to Hell. The two bonus campaigns retread some familiar ground, story-wise, but are also fairly decent, especially “Resurrection of Evil”; “Lost Mission” felt a little slapdash in comparison.
Before I wrapped up Doom 3, I defeated the final boss in a very different sort of game: The Guided Fate Paradox, a roguelike developed by Nippon Ichi for the PS3. It was a shrewd choice to be Nippon Ichi’s 20th anniversary title, not just because of its genre, but also its setting: Celestia, the angelic counterpart to the Netherworld where so many of the company’s games take place. In this particular entry in Nippon Ichi’s multidimensional canon, the player character is Renya, a high school student who wins the title of “God” in a shopping arcade lottery. Despite the wacky setup, much of the rest of the story, in which Renya fulfills prayers and wishes hand-picked by his team of angels, is played fairly straight, with very few forays into outright comedy. Some potential is there—an innuendous angel, a chuunibyou angel, a mission that involves helping zombies—but it never gets as comedic as many of the studio’s other works.
As for the story that is there, it’s a heaping pile of jargon-laden anime bullshit with a few entertaining bits here and there. Much of the game’s plot seems to exist solely to justify the mechanics of fighting, picking up items, leveling up, dying, and then doing most all of it over again from scratch. Other such games are happy enough hand-waving away the peculiarities of the roguelike format when it comes to storytelling, but The Guided Fate Paradox isn’t. In a way, I’m glad they took this approach, since it fits very well with Nippon Ichi’s house style, but there were times when it all felt a touch too complicated or serious for them. Despite all that, the dungeon crawling parts were mostly outstanding, with some neat chapter-specific gimmicks, snappy movement and attack speeds, loads of customization options (including some basic stats which can be improved permanently), and, save for a grindy endgame, a fair difficulty curve. If you like this sort of game at least as much as I do and can stomach or ignore the less-than-great story bits, The Guided Fate Paradox is worth a try.
Other than that, I beat Pokemon Blue Version, ending my journeys through both Kanto and Pokemon’s origins. I also played Evoland II, which is both bigger and not as good in certain ways as its predecessor: though the plotting is amazingly thorough and most of the gameplay bits are solid, there’s too many superfluous references to other games and too much rambling dialogue (see this post I made in CAG’s current RPG Thread for more detailed impressions). As for some more of those aforementioned Summer Sale games, Witch and Hero was a nice and chaotic little J-indie nugget, Bejeweled 3 was (and continues to be) so very good, and DLC Quest was pleasantly goofy, if a little ugly to look at, and didn’t wear out its welcome.
As for stuff I’m still playing, besides trying to get the last two (very tough) achievements in Bejeweled 3, there’s Project CARS, Fantasy Life, and Pokemon GO. As I only typically buy one sim racer per generation, the PC version of Project CARS had a lot riding on it, but I’m enjoying its career mode thus far. It’s quite deep, but also very approachable thanks to its bevy of difficulty modifiers, which is great for filthy casual racing fans like myself. Fantasy Life is much like most any other game wholly conceived and developed by Level-5: beautiful, dense with variety, and with a story and world that’s pleasantly vanilla. Sometimes this latter point works against them, as it did for me with Professor Layton and the Curious Village, but the results here are a bit more mixed; I’m not quite sure what to make of it yet. Lastly, there’s Pokemon GO. As Pokemon games go, it’s one of the shallowest ever made, but the real world trappings are a neat novelty, and, at the very least, it’s getting me out and walking a bit more.
Soon, Doom 2016 will join that list. I’ve already been to Hell and back again with Doomguy a handful of times this year, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t looking forward to one more trip.
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March has been a mixed bag of a month. Between Daylight Savings, the fluctuating weather, and other circumstances, I wasn’t sleeping well for awhile, but now I’ve more or less adjusted. My comics backlog has grown bigger thanks to a big shipment of manga from Right Stuf, a couple of used bookstore pickups, and the arrival of a certain long-awaited graphic novel. I’ve also started trying out some new recipes for a change.
As for gaming, that’s been going more or less okay since my last post here, and the games themselves have been about as much of a mixed bag. I beat Disgaea 3; the ending was all right, though since learning that the sidequests are as grindy as expected, I officially put it down not long after. Before that, I went back to and finally beat Legend of Dungeon, using a class I hadn’t given a second thought to before; it’s still not at version 1.0 yet, but I’m just glad to be done with a second roguelike/like this year. Speaking of which, I took up Spelunky again and made quite a bit of progress, though it will be a long time until I actually beat it.
In addition to continuing on with Bravely Default and picking up Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA 2 again, that about wraps it up for February. Moving on to March, the first game I beat this month was the hot new release Firewatch. It is a beautiful and (mostly) well-crafted game, though a little bit of a victim of its own hype. The story is not mind-blowing but still decent; the save system leaves much to be desired; and the characters, music, and so forth were well done; but the real star in this game is the environment. Firewatch is set on a small parcel of US National Park land, and each little area within is distinctive in many ways. Aside from the climbing rocks (which are especially gamelike in a certain part), the wilderness here feels like a real place, and is easily the best thing about Firewatch.
This was not, however, the first game I started in March. That honor goes to Pokemon Blue Version, which, along with Red and Yellow, came out on the 3DS Virtual Console on the date of the series’ 20th birthday. Pokemon’s first generation is the only one I hadn’t played in some form, and, given how pricey original cartridges of that gen and its remakes can be, was one I hadn’t planned on ever playing until the Virtual Console announcement was made. I’m currently up to three gym badges and am not far from getting the fourth. It’s been interesting to see the roots of the series: the Pokemon, items, gyms, HMs, and all the other little things one becomes accustomed to seeing in the games. Some of the things that were different were just as surprising; for instance, most of the Pokemon don’t have listed genders, nor is the indicator for whether or not you’ve already caught a certain type present. The player character’s rival is also far more obnoxious than they would be in later series entries, and there is also a greater emphasis on filling up the Pokedex. In general, it’s all still both fun and tedious in its telltale ways; twenty years on, the core of what makes Pokemon Pokemon hasn’t changed much.
Next up would be the third RPG I’m currently playing: Diablo III, via the Ultimate Evil Edition on 360. After trying out a handful of different classes, bitprophet and I settled on a wizard and a monk (respectively) and started our adventure to investigate a fallen star and the prophecy it portends. It’s the loot-heavy, lore-heavy action RPG that you’d expect, and it’s looking to be quite long, as well.
Needing a break from RPGs for a little while, I recently started delving into some shorter games in other genres. First up was Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F. This was my first time playing a Hatsune Miku Project game that’s specifically in the DIVA series, and, sadly, it was not as much fun as Project mirai DX. The difficulty is brutal, the small button icons can frequently get lost in the music video chaos on-screen, and there’s a handful of aesthetic issues that prevent me from enjoying it as much. Chief among these is the tracklist, which is on the weaker side overall, and weighs heavily on more offbeat songs toward the end. A lesser quibble I have is that the “modules” specific to each song are locked from the outset, which means Miku and company perform in their default outfits whenever a track is played for the first time. This is okay for many tracks, but does not work as well with others, especially the elaborate period piece “Senbonzakura”. After unlocking all the songs on Easy, I was ready to set Project DIVA F aside and move on to something else.
The next day, I started Kero Blaster, which is by Cave Story‘s Studio Pixel. It’s much more linear, for better or for worse, than Cave Story, and also more lighthearted, but maintains that same feel otherwise. The characters are all down to earth, moving and shooting are handled well (there’s even a bubble-based weapon that’s actually useful), and the levels are sufficiently challenging. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes old school-style “run and gun” side-scrolling games, and to fellow Cave Story fans especially. There are also two (very charming) free games, titled Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, that serve as demos of sorts for Kero Blaster, though you could also play them afterward, as I did.
Finally, there’s the two classic titles I started yesterday: Professor Layton and the Curious Village and the HD version of NiGHTS into Dreams… The former is my first Layton game, and might also be my last; it’s decent for what it is—a collection of brainteasers in a story wrapper seemingly inspired by European comics—but I’m not exactly hooked. I’m only about a couple of hours in, so maybe I’ll change my mind later on, but I kind of doubt it. Meanwhile, NiGHTS, which I ended up beating earlier today, is a slick-for-its-time 3D action experiment. Its so different from any other game that’s been made, I’m not sure if it has aged poorly or well. The camera’s a little iffy (though not as bad as in certain later Sonic Team games), the story’s more convoluted and strange than average, the routes through the levels can be tricky to navigate, and the game as a whole is short, but it’s got a certain flair which makes it impossible to dislike. Even more appealing is an unlockable bonus in the form of Christmas NiGHTS, one of the most famous and unique game demos ever made. This demo takes one of the first stages of NiGHTS and dresses it up with a Christmas theme, complete with a separate story to go along with it. Unfortunately, unlike the main game, the original Saturn version of Christmas NiGHTS is not included as a playable option.
That’s about all I’ve been up to lately, gaming-wise. With Kero Blaster and its spinoffs, I decided that it might be a good idea to dedicate my weekends to an indie/doujin game (or two) of a reasonable length, which would help me churn through more of my backlog, at the very least. At the moment, I’m considering my options for this coming weekend, and there are a lot of them. I should also get back to the RPGs in between those indies and sessions with Professor Layton. One of my major backlog goals for this year is to put a dent in the number of RPGs I have sitting around unplayed, but I was not expecting Bravely to be this long. Perhaps I’ll have it beaten by next month. Either way, I have no idea which RPG I would want to play next.
Just got back from Portland yesterday. It was an exhausting trip, filled with plenty of walking and foodie’s food. I had wanted to write this post either right before or during the trip, but a lack of sleep got in the way. However, I managed to catch up, somewhat, last night, so here I am.
To start off with, at the beginning of this month, I beat Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon, an action RPG which has one of the longest titles of any game I’ve ever played. In terms of both gameplay and plot, it was better than the first Raidou game, which I beat earlier in the year. New features—such as the ability to summon two demons at once; better accessibility to the Gouma-den, where new demons can be fused; and a negotiation system which, despite its usual tediousness, is the best I’ve seen in all of MegaTen—were quite welcome, though some repetitive elements stood out as the game’s greatest flaws. By that, I don’t mean the reuse of much of the previous game’s assets, which I didn’t mind at all. Rather, what bothered me was the overdone recapping, and even more, the obviousness with how the story’s branches were handled. Every so often, roughly once a chapter, a character would ask a rhetorical, philosophical question that basically asked Raidou to choose between revolution and the status quo. The answers to these ham-fisted questions don’t matter until the very end of the game, and even then, there is one final barrage of inquiries right before the branching path is settled upon. Despite these nitpicks, Raidou 2 was a decent game, though hardly the best MegaTen I’ve played.
A few days afterward, I finally finished reading a manga series which I had first sampled over fifteen years ago: Barefoot Gen. My first experience with Gen came with a copy of Volume 2, picked up cheaply at a certain bookstore in Philadelphia. Some years later, I picked up a used copy of Volume 3, but I didn’t buy any more of the series until last year, when I picked up the first and fourth volumes. Around then was when I learned that my older volumes were heavily abridged, and that the current edition, published by Last Gasp, is complete and uncut. Therefore, I repurchased volumes 2 and 3, and, later on, the last six books as well.
A semi-autobiographical tale inspired by mangaka Keiji Nakazawa’s childhood, Barefoot Gen tells the story of Gen Nakaoka, an elementary school-aged boy who survives the atomic bombing of his hometown, Hiroshima. By the end of the first volume, the bomb has dropped, and the story truly begins. Subsequent volumes find Gen making new friends, being discriminated against, and raging at not just the Americans who dropped the bomb and occupied Japan, but the Japanese Emperor and politicians who were so eager to wage war in the first place. It is, as noted in the always excellent ANN column House of 1000 Manga (spoilers in link), an angry manga, and sometimes, especially toward the end, Gen’s anger gets to be a little too much. The last few volumes are rather tedious at times, even as it explores the Japanese side of things during the Korean War; as a sign of the plot wearing thin, the final tragedy that befalls Gen and his group is one which, startlingly, doesn’t have much of a direct tie to the atomic bomb. Gen is also a violent manga; atomic bomb aside, it hews to the shonen manga tropes of its time, with lots of hitting and fighting, often between adults and children. Despite its pacifist message, seeing Gen so eager to physically fight people who dismiss his anti-war views is more than a bit disarming. Also, without giving anything away, in one of the later volumes Gen does something in the name of his personal philosophy that is so lacking of empathy and maturity it’s astounding. It’s an important manga, probably the best I’ve ever read about Japan during that era, but it’s also rather dated, and at least one of the included forewards was undesirably diversionary from the manga’s basic premise. It might’ve helped if the manga was broken up into chapters, as they were originally serialized, but instead, the manga flows together as one long story, broken up only by its separation into ten books. I recommend the first few volumes, but if you don’t want to stick with it after that, I really couldn’t blame you.
After Gen was wrapped up, and between new volumes of Nisekoi (aka the harem manga for people who normally dislike harem manga) and the always charming and hunger-inducing What Did You Eat Yesterday?, more games were played! I started, and am still playing, a Japanese copy of Picross DS, which I picked up on the cheap during Play-Asia’s annual Spring Sale. There’s nothing much to say about it besides that yeah, it’s Picross, though the zoomed-in 15×15 puzzles took me a little getting used to, not to mention the menus in a language that I can’t understand very much of. Right now, I’m currently stuck on a couple of flower-themed puzzles in Normal mode, though I’m sure I’ll push through them soon enough.
I also cranked through a few short games on Steam. First up was Escape Goat, a room-based puzzle game a la Adventures of Lolo and Toki Tori. It’s a solid entry in this genre, structured to encourage experimentation, and with precise controls and well-designed, if sometimes frustrating, puzzles. If you like this sort of game, as I do, you’ll like Escape Goat—enough said.
Second was Octodad: Dadliest Catch, whose controls were the opposite: intentionally difficult to master. This game, about an octopus trying to live as a normal suburban father in a nuclear family, revels in the ridiculous. Everyday tasks, such as mowing the lawn or picking out the perfect apple at the supermarket, are much harder when your arms and legs are tentacles and you want to blend in with actual humans. The story takes some interesting turns, and although I felt somewhat partially robbed of my final victory due to where a certain object landed, I found Octodad to be a neat little game overall. The pair of included bonus episodes were worth playing through as well.
The third short game I played through before leaving for Portland was the shortest and least interactive of the bunch: a wordless visual novel called A Bird Story. Produced by the developer of To the Moon, this is a similarly sentimental journey. In it, a young boy, who goes through the motions at school and is interested in flight, rescues a bird. It’s kind of cloying at times, and because of that, whether or not you’d like this would depend on your natural tolerance for such things. Thankfully, the length is just right, and most everything about it is simple and straightforward.
Now that I’m back, and catching up on my sleep, I think I’ll continue going through some other short games in my backlog, which I may or may not write about here. I also picked up Legend of Dungeon again recently, which has improved since the last time I played it, thanks to some patches. It’s now not as unfair as before, though it still lacks some of the refinement and balance of better roguelikes. Goat Simulator is also in my “Now Playing” list, though I’m not sure when I’ll go back to it.
I also may start the last unplayed PS2 game I have left in my backlog (if you don’t count Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, which I’ve put up for sale): Sakura Wars: So Long My Love. I may start that this week, depending on how I feel; we’ll see. At any rate, it’ll definitely get played sometime soon.
It’s always frustrating to see a game get so much right, only to fall flat on its face in a few significant ways, but such was my experience with Valkyria Chronicles. This game had been on my radar for a long time, and I picked it up a few months after its arrival on Steam. In most ways, it lived up to the hype, and I greatly enjoyed it, but its flaws are difficult to ignore.
I’ll start with the good stuff since, like I said, this game does do a lot of things right. This is a strategy RPG unlike most others, one which ditches the isometric gridded maps for full 3D environments as in other modern console JRPGs. The gameplay is a mix of the real-time (shifting lines of sight and enemy fire while a unit moves) and the turn-based (everything else), with variables ranging from weapon capabilities to characters’ personalities affecting every action in the field. Keeping things simple, the character classes are limited to five (six if you include tanks), with the strengths and weaknesses of each clearly defined.
The most welcome aspect of the battle system is the way experience is handled. One of the issues I almost always run up against in SRPGs is leveling up individual units; in these sorts of games, only those who deal the killing blows to enemies gain experience points. Valkyria Chronicles solves this problem by not doling out EXP until the end of a battle, after which it goes into a wallet of sorts that can be spent on leveling up entire classes and/or learning new orders, special buffs which can be used on one or more units during a fight. On the downside however, at least for me, the amounts of both EXP and money received at the end of battle are partially determined by a rigid grading system, where higher grades are given the faster a map is cleared, similar to modern Sonic games. Despite this, I found that the shared experience pool, along with the equipment upgrade system and party management options, nicely streamlines the most fiddly bits of a customization-heavy genre.
The maps themselves are diverse in size, layout, terrain, and so on, and although the missions tend to rely too much on “occupy the enemy’s main base” as a goal, there is enough variation amongst the rest that this doesn’t become too dull. There is a learning curve for many of the missions, particularly if you’re like me and don’t want to lose any units (permadeath being very much A Thing for non-officer Valkyria Chronicles militiapeople), but the game is generally not very difficult.
Aesthetically, there’s as much pleasure here as within the gameplay. The cel-shaded graphics have a earthy and sketchy watercolor look about them, and, despite the occasional bit of outlandishness in the character design, everything is animated with subtlety and grace. Fan favorite game composer Hitoshi Sakimoto is responsible for the soundtrack, which is slightly gentler and happier than some of his most famous SRPG works. Excellent voice acting and sound effects complete the package. All of this is presented within a nearly flawless PC port; I did encounter one very bad clipping error, along with one or two much less severe issues, but the vast majority of the game ran smoothly.
Tying all this together is a user interface that is, for the most part, a dream to work with. The main menu takes the form of a book, with story events and battles broken up into individual sections within their respective chapters. Every cutscene not tied to a battle can be replayed at the player’s leisure after they’re first viewed, making catching up on the story between play sessions a refreshingly trivial affair. Outside of the story, customization and other features are largely handled through a “Headquarters” tab, and similar appendices are available for optional skirmish battles, glossaries, and so on. Just about the only thing I don’t like about the main menu is that there’s no “Load” option; to jump to a different save file, one has to quit back to the opening screen and do it through there.
In battle, the UI is just as handy, if not moreso. Things like number of remaining action points, unit locations, and so on are clearly marked, and although there are no takebacks after a unit has been chosen in the field, saving and loading files can be done at any time between actions.
However, despite all the polish that has gone into how the game plays, the story has a handful of issues. Blending the real-life inspiration of World War II with touches of JRPG-style fantasy, Valkyria Chronicles is set in the Europan country of Gallia, a neutral party caught between the western Federation and eastern Empire. The story, presented in the form of a book titled “On the Gallian Front”, revolves around Militia Lieutenant Welkin Gunther and his comrades in Squad 7. Naturally, Welkin just happens to be the son of a famous war hero, and has come to Gallia’s capital from a small town with two young women in tow: reserved younger sister Isara and energetic baker’s apprentice Alicia.
If this one-guy-two-girls setup is reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia, that’s probably not an accident, as Valkyria Chronicles shares some key staff members, and even contains a few nice homages to the older RPG. However, the comparisons don’t stop there, as several of Arcadia‘s most conspicuous plot elements make themselves incredibly clear early on. Because Arcadia was lighter in tone and, to a certain extent, unabashedly cartoony—with brightly-colored graphics, a setting that could only exist in fantasy, and themes of adventure and discovery—it could largely get away with its by-the-numbers story. On the other hand, the more grounded Valkyria, with its more modest plot centered around a small country doing its best to defend itself, doesn’t have that luxury. As a result, and despite some surprises and high points, Valkyria‘s story is more obviously predictable than even your average JRPG (particularly if you pay attention to certain details in the opening movie) and its few missteps stand out all the more.
The primary example I can give of the latter involves a major spoiler, so I won’t describe it in great detail, but I do want to discuss it, so I’ll try my best not to give too much away. It starts with a well-executed story sequence, and quite moving as well, so much so that it was the third instance of a game making me cry. However, even while this event was playing out, one character’s reaction to it confused me. More worryingly, when a certain aspect of this event is repeated later on, it felt like a cheapening of what had come before; on top of that, there was a ton of foreshadowing leading up to Event #2, so it’s not like that storytelling mechanic was all on the shoulders of Event #1. To the writers’ credit, Event #1 did have lasting relevance right on through to the end of the game, so it wasn’t a superfluous scene. However, the execution of both events was… poorly considered. This was, I might add, the point where I started to grow somewhat tired of the game.
The characters, like the story, don’t shy away from cliches, and despite most of them being pleasant, or, at the very least, interesting to watch, there’s only as much depth added to them as needed for the plot. This is especially true of the non-story-required militia members, each one of whom can be neatly filed away according to archetype. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of recruits to choose from when forming your squad, and it’s easy enough to ignore the most annoying-seeming characters in favor of those who are more appealing. On a positive note, it’s hard to ignore the fact that these grunts are a step up from the bland, personality-lacking units of the SRPGs of the past.
Choosing your squad, however, is not an option in the “Enter the Edy Detachment!” DLC, where you are stuck with six specific militia members, including and led by the shrill Edy, in a brief side-story where they get separated from the rest of Squad 7. This mission is unusually difficult if you don’t learn how to second-guess the AI, and doesn’t really add anything to the main story. Much better is the Selvaria-focused “Behind Her Blue Flame”, which shows a somewhat different side of this enemy general and includes some nice little tie-ins to the main game.
There are two other DLCs, an unlockable “Expert Mode” for the main game’s optional battles and a set of Edy Detachment-themed skirmishes, but I didn’t touch either of them. All four come with the Steam release, no extra purchases necessary, which is a nice bonus. Even without these essentially-free DLCs, Valkyria Chronicles‘ PC port is solid package that’s worth picking up, but if you’re a newcomer, be warned that the story is neither as good nor as innovative as the rest of the game.