Face Off: Mass Effect vs. Persona

There are exactly three major games coming out in 2017 that I considered must-plays from announcement (the first being Horizon: Zero Dawn), and somehow they are all coming out within a little more than a month of one another. It’s going to be a busy springtime for us all, fellow gamers. My two most anticipated games of the year come from two franchises that have represented the best that Eastern and Western RPGs have to offer, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Persona 5, and they are coming out a mere two weeks apart. With only twenty four hours in each day and hundreds of potential gaming hours staring me in the face, this has caused me no small amount of distress. After preordering both I’m now fretting the pressure to rush through the first to get to the second and how I’m going to fit multiplayer into all of this. First world gamer problems, right?

But let’s say you aren’t an RPG aficionado, you’ve never gotten into Mass Effect, and you’ve never even played a Persona game (and fair enough, the last one came out as a relative obscurity in America nine years ago), but you are interested in giving one a shot and only have a mere sixty dollars to your name. Which to get? You’ve come to the right place, my friend. While these two franchises perhaps represent the very pinnacles of their genre, they also could not be more different. Mass Effect: Andromeda is coming out this week with Persona 5 hot on its heels in early April so if you haven’t yet experienced the brilliance that these two franchises have to offer, and are looking to buy in but not willing or able to commit to both. I’m here to help.

Persona and the rest of Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei franchise that spawned it have historically always, somewhat unfairly, taken a backseat to the blockbuster Final Fantasy series when it comes to Japanese RPGs, but while the latter has floundered somewhat in the last two generations, the former has bided its time with fighting game spin-offs, and absence has made gamers’ hearts grow fonder. PSN ports of the series have given a lot of players a chance to go back and rediscover these gems, and as a result Persona has greatly increased in popularity over the years, even spawning animated film and television adaptations of the last two games. The contemporary setting, compelling themes, unique style, and undeniable charm of the series has put it at the top of many gamers’ most beloved JRPGs list.

By contrast, the Mass Effect trilogy was a worldwide smash right out of the gate last gen. After giving us arguably the best Star Wars game of all time in Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare decided to create their very own space opera franchise out of scratch and did a better job than anybody could have imagined. Taking their penchant for memorable characters and nuanced interactive conversations and switching the core combat to third person shooting rather than the semi-turn-based system they’d leaned on since the Baldur’s Gate days, they took a niche genre and made it palatable to non-RPGers while retaining everything that made their titles great role playing experiences. And as an added bonus, they pushed gaming as a storytelling medium forward by making it a trilogy where your character, their stats, and their decisions from each game carried forward to the others, making each Mass Effect story unique to every gamer.

As different as they are, the two franchises do have one core theme in common: player choice. But even the way this is handled is different. Mass Effect lets you create your own character and steer each conversation while making the big decisions and crafting your character’s moral code based on the way you resolve the situations you find yourself in. Diplomacy or aggression, idealism or pragmatism, and compassion or duty are just some of the choices you have to make, and your character and the way the world around them reacts will change according to those choices. And these choices could be ported to the next game along with your character.

By contrast, Persona puts you in the shoes of an established character with more limited dialogue choices and a visual novel style of storytelling, but gives you endless ways to spend your time while navigating the challenges of high school and supernatural horrors with a limited amount of time to spend so that every choice really matters. While the story has multiple outcomes, the core game becomes about managing your limited time to build the relationships and abilities you want rather than building a character’s legacy through your decisions. Also, each title in the series is a stand alone, so there’s no baggage for players new to the series.

Combatwise, Mass Effect has refined its initially rough shooter mechanics to nearly rival the likes of Gears of War, adding a hefty dose of the sci-fi abilities they pioneered in KOTOR to make for action that is both strategic and visceral. The third game added a highly successful co-op multiplayer component with a community that still remains active over five years later. Truth be told, even if Andromeda was an online only shooter, I’d still buy it just for that aspect. And I’m not one who often does that.

Persona has stuck to the traditional JRPG turn-based approach and remains a shining star in that arena long after Final Fantasy left the premises. The strategic and often unforgiving combat relies heavily on uncovering and exploiting enemy weaknesses with a variety of skills to incapacitate them and get continuous combos that lead to a devastating full-party rushdown. It’s not as action oriented as Mass Effect’s real time gunplay, but it can be just as intense and every lick as satisfying.

But where it deviates most from Mass Effect -and most other RPGs- is in its cerebral themes and psychological symbolism. Most games will simply have a character tell you what they are feeling, but the unique scenarios of Persona are designed not to tell you, but to show you. Each character has their external selves; the face they show the world. But the series’ theme is that within each individual, there lies a shadow self, where their basest dark impulses hide, as well as a Persona, their inner self. For example, in Persona 4 each character had a dungeon essentially set inside of their minds where they did battle with their inner conflicts, things like personal jealousy, sexuality, and gender roles were laid bare and manifested as literal demons to be defeated before each character could come to terms with them. The brilliance of Atlus’s storytelling should not be underestimated.

By comparison, BioWare’s series ramps up the drama like a Star Wars film on steroids. If Persona is a zany but symbolically deep Japanese art film, Mass Effect is an incredible American sci-fi epic with moments that inspire shock, fear, exhilaration, tears, and laughter. What it lacks in abstract symbolism, it more than makes up for by balancing casual relatability with insane epicness. This series is nothing if not a crowdpleaser. Even the harshest naysayers are first in line for their copy whenever a new one comes out, and that says more than any number of complaints about facial animations can.

Both series revolve around character interactions. Mass Effect will have you hunting down each crew member between missions for fully cinematic chats where you can get to know each character as if they were your own family. If you play your cards right, you can even find a little romance. And there’s plenty of time to give everybody attention, so no big rush.

Persona uses the more comic bookish static visual novel style for conversations, but with tons of NPCs around town and school on top of your party members to hang out with and a limited amount of time in each day to get to know them, prioritizing your friendships and potential romances makes them that much more vital. Each major character has their own story that plays out over the course of the game, but how much of it you end up experiencing is up to you. Persona is as much a social and time-management simulator as it is a role playing game, and that’s something else that makes it a unique challenge.

In terms of overall presentation, Persona’s anime stylishness clashes with Mass Effect’s attempts at photorealism. This affords the former a more timeless low budget look whereas the latter will be mocked for every graphical glitch. It’s not easy pushing the boundaries of technology, so Atlus tends to stick to what they know will work for them and focuses instead on a compelling experience for the player. BioWare was at the forefront of innovation last gen, not only with pushing cinematic NPC animations to a new level, but pioneering the ability to transfer a character and their story across multiple games with Mass Effect.

At the end of the day, your inner otaku and art student will likely love you for going with Persona 5. It’s got a relatable modern setting, unique visuals and music, classical RPG combat with some twists, and one of the best storytelling pedigrees in the industry. Mass Effect: Andromeda is designed to light up every inch of your sci-fi fixation and represents the ground floor of a new era for a series that has dominated best series discussions for years. So if you’ve never felt the need to board on this gravy train before, now’s the time.

Obviously, any true RPGer is going to be buying both, but which one you prefer will rely very heavily on you as a person and a gamer. I’ve illustrated some of the many contrasts between the two series, so it really boils down to whether you prefer action or turn-based strategy, stylized visuals or attempted photorealism, stand-alone stories or continuous narratives, innovation or classicism, epicness or artfulness, and so on. Personally, I love all of these things and can’t wait to play either. But which RPG will you be prioritizing this spring?

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Five Music Videos that Capture the Gaming Experience

The three most important artistic elements of my life have been music, video games, and film in that order. They gave me places to go and things to do when I had nowhere worth going and nothing worth doing. They gave me friends when I was alone and joy when nothing else could. That is to say, these things were absolutely vital to me growing up. But very seldom have these three things I love come together equally to create something that satisfies me on all levels.

Enter the modern age. Anime is a thing you can now see without spending upwards of a hundred dollars on a boxed set, gaming is the single biggest entertainment medium, and to see a great music video you don’t have to rely on MTV to play it for you. Thanks, internet. Like in the Police song, the nerdy message in the bottle I sent so long ago has come back with millions of replies and all of my geek pastimes are everywhere now.

But still, it’s not often I come across something that works as a film, as a musical piece, and captures the essence of gaming at the same time. But in recent years, I’ve found some here and there and it’s my duty to share them with you. So clear a little time (who are we kidding, you’re browsing the internet.You have the time) and let’s take an audio-visual journey into the worlds of gaming through five music videos.

Me and You

“Are you ready?

Do you know?

I feel it too.”

Nero’s inaugural 2010 album, Welcome Reality, helped change the way I look at electronic music. Yeah, I was kind of one of those “real music means real instruments” guys. And for the most part, I still am, but hearing music like this makes me realize it’s not the instruments that matter, it’s the artists, and a well programmed dance song can be just as artistic and brilliant as an epic rock tune.

The video opens in that most classic of video game locations, the arcade. A magical place from many of our youths filled with light guns and steering wheels. Our protagonist leaves the crowd and wanders the abandoned halls to find that fabled gaming cabinet that was a standard of ‘80s cinema and urban legends.The game is a combination of classic beat ‘em up and racing and the protagonist SUCKS at both. The music has a great epic feel that seems to perfectly sum up the excitement of firing up a new game for the first time and the video is pure nostalgia fuel that does a solid job of capturing the arcade experience.

Speed of Light

“Let’s shoot the moon you and me

I’m not particular you’ll see

Just a lonesome galaxy”

Ah, the mighty Iron Maiden. Secretly one of the biggest bands in the world for three decades running and still perhaps the best live act you can see on a stage. Also: total bunch of geeks. Aside from routinely writing songs about science fiction novels and horror films, they also released a best of set in 1999, Ed Hunter, that included a PC game based on the fan-voted songs on the album. The game was an awful rail shooter, but still. How many bands create video games for their CDs?

2015’s Book of Souls proved that not only does the band still have it musically, but they are willing to push the nerd envelope even further with the video for the lead single, “Speed of Light” taking us on a tour of gaming history with the band’s demonic mascot, Eddie. It begins with a Maidenized Donkey Kong, cruises to a Contra-esque 2D shooter, through the fighting game era (Satan totally does a spinning piledriver, but Eddie’s critical art and fatality game can’t be fucked with), and into Elder Scrolls/FPS territory, ending up back in the place that every gamer who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s left their hearts: the arcade.

 

Protoculture

“Video games, I got many to play

Before my life expires, fulfill my desires”

Del the Funky Homosapien had his brush with fame guesting on the Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” in 2001 to drop two of the best rap verses ever heard on popular radio, but he has always been an underground MC at heart, and a true geek. If he’s not finding ways to slip terms like “combo-spamming” into his rhymes, he’s probably referencing Marvel Comics or crafting another amazing cyberpunk hip-hop concept album with his supergroup, Deltron. Dude is legit.

This is the one video on the list that isn’t an official release, but as fan-made vids go, this is an hard project to screw up since the lyrics do most of the heavy lifting. Del and guest Khaos Unique probably set the world record for most gaming references compressed into four minutes, rhyming over a Darkstalkers sample. Nostalgia for ColecoVision and obscure references to games like Nightmare Creatures is the kind of cred you can’t really fake; these badass rappers are nerdier than you are. I questioned Del’s claim that he beat Legend of Zelda in an hour using the map in the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power, but apparently it can be done in half that time, so Del: 1, Nick: 0. And there’s a Master Chief moonwalk in the video. Gotta love that.

King

“I won’t be paralyzed

Don’t you know my aim is true

When you’re in my sights”

This one’s more style than substance and the song isn’t really my cup of tea, but you’ve got to love that video. It really makes me wish I had a daughter. Grades is a British DJ who’s gotten around in the three years since his debut, collaborating with K-pop artists and remixing classic R&B, but if the only thing he ever did was this video, his career would’ve been worthwhile.

In this charming combination of live action and animation, a little girl gains video game superpowers and dances her way to awesomeness. What this video reminds me of is classic platformers and beat ‘em ups where you played them so much that you had every level memorized and the early game became less about survival and more about stylishly performing for any spectators that were on hand. In modern days, I guess I’d compare it to Dark Souls where you become so familiar with the enemies because you’ve fought them so many times that you have the movements down pat and it’s all just effortless. That megablaster is OP, though.

Shelter

“And it’s a long way forward, so trust in me

I’ll give them shelter, like you’ve done for me”

“Shelter” transcends the music video format to become a masterpiece of short form filmmaking that just happens to be built around a great song. If you only watch one of these videos, this is the one to see. The song is an international collaboration from producers Peter Robinson and Madeon and was released last year in partnership with Crunchyroll. The video was created by A-1 Pictures, an anime studio known for shows like Sword Art Online and the Persona 4 and Valkyria Chronicles animated series’, so they are no strangers to gaming culture.

The narrative is a bittersweet science fiction story of loneliness and escapism told from the perspective of a young woman whose only companions are virtual reality and her own happy childhood memories. She creates massive, endless, amazing worlds with her mind but her tablet still reads no messages. Isolation and escapism can be a big part of a gamer’s life experiences and that feeling of being completely alone in the world and only being powerful and meaningful when exploring fantasies in game form is a very real thing, which is a big part of the passion that drives gamers to defend the medium as fervently as they do. “Shelter” captures both that amazing imaginative experience of completely immersing yourself in a virtual world and the hopeless melancholy that can lead us to seek shelter from harsh reality there. It’s easily one of the best music videos of all time.