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Posts Tagged ‘simulation’

Small Town World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Las Islas de los Presidentes

It was time to come down from the space station. The lack of natural, Earth gravity wasn’t good for my body, and one could only take so much of Arona’s wheeling and dealing after awhile. I had to return to familiar territory. Fortunately, a budget flight to a Caribbean island grouping known as Tropico came upon my radar. Having grown up in Miami and its environs—as entrenched in the world of Carribean and Central and South American politics as it is its cultures—I had some minor reservations, given the borderline-snarky brochure about Tropico, but I was also eager to see palm trees and soak in streets filled with sunshine and Spanish again. Yes, there would be a lot of Spanish; none of the English patois of my own West Indian side of the family, no Hatian Creole, no Brazilian Portuguese. Still, I suppose this simplified things a bit.

"My subjects love me because I am sooo beautiful."My return to Earth involved a bit of time travel, and I was thrust back into the 1950s, in the thick of the Cold War. I took on the alias of “Carmina Salazar” and found myself alarmed at both the limited wardrobe options she/I was presented with compared with the men’s closet, as well as the fact that her/my advisor, throughout our administrations, seemed to assume that the presidente was, in fact, a man the entire time. Even Carmina’s musings to herself about her own beauty as she walked the streets and countrysides seemed not to be enough to convey her femininity. Did the presidential advisor, Penultimo, not get out much?

Perhaps Penultimo simply wasn’t a very good listener. There was one administration where I was advised to build up a nice nest egg for myself in my Swiss bank account. However, after my first specific order through Penultimo, which netted me a cool three thou, subsequent ones wouldn’t go through for some reason. I finally mucked my way through things and amassed the required balance, but it took the more routine measure of money laundering through a bank I had built myself to make most of that ill-gotten cash. This was not the only technical problem I faced, though it was the only one that involved miscommunication with my advisor; the others were minor, of the sort the computer back on the space station might term “glitches”, and simply stepping away for a bit and coming back seemed to right things. Then there were the less technical ones, the typos in the memos that Penultimo would present to me during a few specific administrations. In one instance, the name of a country was spelled both correctly and incorrectly within the same note!

There were other frustrating moments, though some of these came out of my own moral quandries. For the most part, I refused to grow tobacco and erect cigar factories, which severely hampered me during an administration on an island on which tobacco was practically the only thing that would grow. Then there were the offshore oil deposits. Considering the indescribably disgusting mess going on in the present-day Gulf of Mexico, I stayed away from offshore rigs until the very end, when the need to amass an incredible amount of money presented itself.

This was one of the trickier maps in Tropico 3, as far as urban development went.Still, despite the tough work, long hours, and little annoyances, the islands of Tropico were beautiful places to manage. Palm trees swayed gently on landscapes of rolling hills, flat, sandy beaches, and steep cliffsides. The terrain was oftentimes tricky to navigate, but the well-worn footpaths, probably made by natives from a more agrarian past, were a great help. Laying roads straight was another fussy bit of business, but I got the hang of it after awhile, and would even sometimes go back and repave the old crooked roads that I had been presented with at the start of my term of an island. The buildings for the islands inhabitants all proved to be useful in one way or another. Those for the tourists—them being a picky bunch—not so much. When land becomes flattened to place a building, sometimes it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not it looks okay, or just silly. Meanwhile, the people had their problems and demands, as people everywhere do, but that’s life, yeah? At least I could silence the radio announcer, Juanito, when his interruptions got too distracting.

My time running the islands of Tropico has ended, at least for now. It was a interesting and engrossing series of terms, but not enough to make me forget about that spinning metal bicycle tyre some light years away from here. That place will likely remain my first choice should I be torn between a gig as Administrator, and one as El Presidente. Still, I wouldn’t mind dipping my toes into that clear blue water again in the future, lively Latin music playing on the radio. It’d be hard to say no to such a beautiful place.