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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Six Stunning RPG Character Deaths

rpgdeath

Historically, more than any other genre, role playing gamers have been about the characters. The likes of Mario, Sonic, and Link may be the big celebrities of gaming, but the truth is we as gamers connect a lot more with RPG characters because the stories are often much more in depth. We’re not just running, jumping, hacking, and slashing towards whatever arbitrary goal the game says; we build them and watch them grow in ability and in depth. We make choices for them. We experience their lives.

And that’s why when one of them is taken from us as part of an irreversible story twist, it sticks with us in ways that simply don’t translate to other genres. It not only leaves a hole in our hearts, it leaves a hole in our party; a role we can no longer play. Role playing games are some of the only games that really make you feel the death of a fictional virtual avatar like the loss of a friend, and as a result they are more dramatic, tragic, and fulfilling than in a shooter where maybe the bro who was machine gunning monsters next to you goes out in an explosive blaze of glory (and cliche).

These make for some of the most outstanding moments in gaming history, and while most of them  get overlooked by the public at large (RPGs being more of a niche genre), we remember them. How could we possibly forget? Needless to say that the following sections contain spoilers so proceed with caution. These are six characters that were taken from from us in surprising ways at unexpected moments and made us feel the loss, often in more ways than one.  

Tellah

Final Fantasy IV is and shall ever be the bestrpgdeath1 Final Fantasy. Make no substitutions unless you want to forever label yourself a scrub. It was the first first epic RPG to truly earn the title of “epic” and put gaming on the same storytelling footing as other forms of media. And for a lot of gamers, it was the first video game to meaningfully cross the line and permanently kill a playable character. Sage Tellah was not the first nor last to sacrifice themselves over the course of this amazing story, but he was the only one who didn’t come back.

Tellah’s story arc is a meaningful one not only because of the fact that it ends conclusively, but in the way FFIV melds subtle gameplay challenges that enhance the story. When you get Tellah, he is a moderately powerful magician who has forgotten most of his spells, but his combination of black and white magic is intrinsic to your party’s early success in this tough RPG. After losing his daughter, his quest for vengeance against your common enemy leads to him remembering his lost spells, which is an intimidating array, to say the least.

At this point the character gets really interesting because although he knows about every single spell there is, his MP is very limited; not even enough to cast Meteor. Tellah is a frail old man who’s reached his limit and your younger mages, Palom and Porom, were surpassing him before your eyes as they grew. But when he finally comes face to face with the object of his vengeance, he converts his very life force into additional MP to cast Meteor and takes the big bad out, saving the party from the same fate as his daughter at the cost of his own life.

Not only is this the first important character death in a video game I that I ever experienced, but it’s still one of the best. Tellah’s passing away marks a major turning point in the game and FFIV is still the only instance I can think of where the concept of aging is worked into gameplay. What seemed so strong in the beginning doesn’t stand the test of time as new and more powerful abilities and enemies emerge and by the end, the powerful sage is barely an asset to the party. Using his last breath to save his compatriots was a powerful gesture made even more so by the context.

 

rpgdeath2Isara Gunther

Valkyria Chronicles was the most underrated RPG of its era and has thankfully been remastered and ported to the current gen to be rediscovered. The story was so good it even received its own anime adaptation, and the defining moment of both is the sudden death of a beloved compatriot that altered the entire tone and scope of the story.

While the game is largely about war and regular people banding together to fight for their homes against those who would dehumanize them for their own gain, there is a less-than-subtle parable about racism woven into it. Isara Gunther is Welkin Gunther’s adopted sister and part of an oppressed race known as Darcsen who have become a cultural scapegoat. She is your militia’s tank driver and mechanic and an essential part of the war effort, but is still treated with suspicion by some of your fellow soldiers.

Over the course of the game’s plot, it eventually becomes clear that the prejudice against Darcsens is poorly founded and Isara’s kindness wins over even the most stubborn bigots (Rosie!) in the squad. She develops smoke shells which become an absolute necessity to continue the attack in the face of overwhelming resistance, proving herself in every possible way. After the first battle where her shells lead to victory, Rosie comes to apologize and offers to do anything to make it up to her. Isara requests a song (Rosie being a professional singer) and just as the two reach to shake hands as friends for the first time a sniper shot rings out…

The subsequent funeral where Rosie fulfills her promise to the deceased is one of the most beautiful and touching scenes in RPG history as well as being the most memorable moment in one of the best console SRPGs of all time.

 

Shinjiro Aragakirpgdeath3

The connective theme of the Persona series has always been about subverting expectations and appearances. The titular entities and corresponding Shadow Selves represent the hidden negative emotions of the people whose minds they inhabit. So naturally, the characters of the series have internal struggles and hidden depths that do not always go hand-in-hand with the front that they choose to show the world. Enter Persona 3 and Shinjiro Aragaki.

Shinjiro is the very picture of the Japanese delinquent; stoic, indifferent, cold, large in stature, and rough in demeanor. He joins your team reluctantly as a returning senpai, but remains extremely disconnected. But secretly, he is concealing a profound depth of sadness and -when nobody is looking- can be genuinely gentle and kind. Eventually it comes out that Shinji’s Persona was responsible for the death of young team member Ken’s mother and Ken plans to kill him for vengeance.

When Ken finally corners his teammate alone, Shinjiro appears to accepts his fate and merely cautions that taking a life will only make Ken like himself: cold and withdrawn. At that time the primary antagonist, Takaya, shows up to mock the two’s predicament. Shinji has been taking pills to suppress his Persona to avoid losing control again ever since the accident with Ken’s mother and they are killing him so he has little time left anyways. Takaya is there to kill Ken once he finishes Shinji off and get two dead enemies for the price of one, but Shinji rushes him and takes the bullet in his junior’s stead.

It’s a selfless and sentimental act from a man who portrayed himself to be selfish and unfeeling, and that makes his death a perfect metaphor for the Persona series as a whole. Shinjiro’s atonement is a tragedy with a layer of triumph. Even when he felt he had no reason to form relationships or even continue living, Shinjiro managed to save a young life in more ways than one, and that’s something few characters ever do.   

 

rpgdeath4Hexxat

The original Baldur’s Gate II came out as the standard for PC RPGs in 2000 courtesy of BioWare, who have since gone on the become the gold standard of console RPG devs as well. Thirteen years later, gamers were still playing it and the Enhanced Edition as released with new content, one of which was a new character with the capacity to break your heart not once, but twice.

The story of Hexxat begins in the Copper Coronet inn where a strange woman pleads with you to help her explore a crypt in the Graveyard District. Her speech pattern suggests mental difficulties, but her thief skills were not to be messed with so Hexxat makes a great addition to the party, distant personality and all.

Depending on what order you do your quests, what eventually happens to the cute purple-haired thief who joined you will affect you differently. But let’s just assume that she spent quite a lot of time in your party before you actually completed her request because this is an open-world RPG and we’ve got things to do, damn it! When you open up the coffin she’s so desperate to get to a vampire rises out of it and drinks her dry, killing her on the spot. It turns out that that woman wasn’t “Hexxat” proper, but some random peasant named Clara who was being mentally possessed from below the Earth by the real Hexxat, who stands before you now, presumably still dribbling her slave’s (former) life’s blood from her chin.

At this point you can strike the monster down or take her on as a replacement. It’s a bit fucked up, really. I can never say no to a potential party member (much less a vampire), but I was genuinely upset about poor Clara. I’d adventured and leveled up with this girl and refined her skill set to suit my needs and preferences. Now I was picking up her gear to give to her murderess, who was taking her spot in my crew. And depending on how things play out, the real Hexxat may end up deliberately departing this (im)mortal coil once her personal quest is complete. So really, Hexxat can be two deaths for the price of one. Absolutely brutal.    

 

Vasilyrpgdeath5

Natural Doctrine is the strategy RPG that was made for people who think Dark Souls is for casuals. This. Game. Is. Rough. Even on normal difficulty. It revels in handicapping the player at every turn and facing them against overwhelming odds because life isn’t fair and it’s survival of the fittest. That’s the real natural doctrine. The game illustrates this point very early on with what I like to call its Scream moment.

So the face of the game is this spunky girl named Vasily. I mean like her face is literally on every save file. Every time you load up a game, there she is, cute as can be. You start out with a party of four and it’s hard going. You’ve got a power attacker, your well-rounded main character, and your gunner/healer with Vasily ideally as a defensive specialist. She defends, everyone else attacks. It works out. Barely.

Early in the game’s story your party discovers a particularly aggressive breed of insectile monsters breeding in mines and devouring the local goblin population. With fighting being a losing option, you barely escape alive, closing a stone passage behind you. After recruiting a mage to report the menace, he insists on proof of the creatures’ existence so you have to return. Once again, you escape behind the stone door. But this time is different. The insect queen smashes through the wall, snatches Vasily in it jaws, and thoroughly mangles your partner before spitting her onto to cavern floor where the rest of the monsters begin devouring her. Damn,  Natural Doctrine. You scary.

This not leaves you with a fractured and weakened party, but a distinct feeling of “that did NOT just happen!” Who does that? Who murders the most likable character right off the bat like that? And still Vasily stares out at you from each and every save file. Every time you save. Every time you load. She won’t go away, and yet she will never return. I actually found a GameFAQs thread of players speculating on possible ways to save her or bring her back to life, which reminds me…

 

rpgdeath6Aerith Gainsborough

Admit it: this was the first thing that crossed your mind when you read the title. And not just because it’s the header image, either. The death of Aerith is one of the most defining moments in many a gamer’s virtual life. In spite of it not being the first permadeath in the series (see above), it was a game changer not only because of how unexpected it was, but with the relatively young art of the cutscene, it was portrayed with an unheard-of level of cinematic panache that made it like a dagger through the heart. Or a katana, in this case.

The damsel in distress is a classic (read: cliche) fiction trope that has a very long history in gaming thanks to its general laziness as a storytelling device. I explain this in case this is your first day on the internet or you’ve never read a book, watched a film or television show, or played a video game. Bad guy kidnaps your girl. You get girl back. Happily ever after. That’s how it works. That’s how it’s ALWAYS worked. But not this time.

After an adorable slow-burn romance (although I prefered Tifa, personally), Cloud and Aerith are on the verge of love when that dickhead Sephiroth (he of the epic theme music) makes off with your Black Materia and the heroine leaves to stop him. When you catch up to her, you see her angelic face as she kneels in prayer for the world…and then you see Sephiroth’s blade skewer her from behind while he smirks at you with his epic dickface. Congrats, Aerith, you’ve successfully graduated from damseled to refrigerated. And to make it worse, she was your party’s only healer, so going on without her was another standard RPG trope broken.

This is pretty much universally pointed to as a major landmark in video game storytelling and the way we look at it. Grown men cried. Critics raved. Gamers never forgot. For years, we searched for some in-game Easter Egg that would bring her back to us. Rumors abounded, but that’s all they were. Square teased us by scattering equipment meant for her throughout the rest of the game, but that was just to salt the wound.

A truly great fictional character death carries with it not only the loss of a present friend, but the loss of your future adventures together. What would Aerith’s ultimate Limit Break look like? We’ll never know. At least not until the upcoming remake comes out. But then again, how many gamers are going to be buying it just to relive that heartbreak all over again? It will be extremely interesting to see what curve balls Square throws at us knowing how high expectations are going to be.

Five Things That Make the Final Fantasy XV Platinum Demo Worth Exploring

demo

Last week brought the final demo for Final Fantasy XV and with it came a lot of surprises. Instead of the standard chunk of gameplay, Square Enix used the game engine to craft a stand-alone story that would give gamers a feel of how the game would play and even give them a little something extra for when the game finally releases.  

This all-out approach at setting the latest triple-A JRPG apart  from the crowd makes sense because Square is truly going all out this time. Not only is FFXV going to be a video game, but they are producing a CG film and anime series, they brought in star vocalist Florence Welch for the soundtrack, and are generally making a big, big noise, claiming that the game needs to sell upwards of ten million copies to make its budget back.

That’s a lot of pressure and probably a bad gamble, considering only one game in the franchise’s history has ever hit that benchmark and the gaming world agrees nearly unanimously that the Final Fantasy brand ain’t what it used to be. Even a lifelong fanatic of the series like myself has very low expectations from this latest entry. But on the other hand: hey, free demo!

I went into the Final Fantasy XV Platinum Demo having no clue what awaited me there. Honestly, I stopped paying attention to a franchise I once followed with a passionate dedication normally reserved to people who show up at Star Wars premieres in cosplay around the time they announced Lighting Returns (a game I have yet to play). By the time I was finished with the demo, I wasn’t ready to preorder just yet, but I was a little hopeful. If nothing else, this game is going to be….interesting. Here are five things that were showcased in the demo that caught me by surprise and made it worth my while.

The Sceneryfinal fantasy xv platinum demo landscape

I remember the first time I fired up Final Fantasy XIII on my Xbox 360 after a full generation away from the series. The beauty of it felt like it was going to melt my eyes. Since the 16-bit era Final Fantasy has always been the gold standard for RPG graphics, always a step or two ahead of everybody else. That may no longer be true as stunning graphics are now the norm, but FFXV is not slouching either.

What Square couldn’t do in graphical superiority this time, they made up for with creativity. The demo takes place as a dream of the main character, Noctis, where he appears as a child exploring various landscapes including a city, wilderness, and -most interestingly- a home in which you are reduced to miniscule proportions. You’re given mysterious switches to hit, crystals to collects, secrets to find, and plenty of room to run (or drive) around.Message from Square: his won’t be a linear corridor fest like most of FFXIII was.

There are some moments of awe near the beginning, such as when you step on a switch and trigger the appearance of a massive flying dragon which dwarfs the very landscape itself. Other switches alter the weather, give you items, summon foes, or even transform you, but most of my time was spent exploring nooks and crannies just looking at everything. In the giant home I found a book fort to my delight, took a few moments to enjoy the art and architecture of the city, and just had a genuinely good time taking it all in. By the end of the journey, I was well on my way to being sold on this “FFXV Universe” Square is hyping so much.

final fantasy xv platinum demo blocksThe Physics

If I nerded out maybe a bit too much while exploring the book fort, I went full toddler when I discovered the destructible environments. This was demonstrated in the demo when I jumped into what I assumed was an immovable structure of blocks and collapsed it. The gigantic home featured many such structures and it occurred to me that I must lay waste to all of it.

I knocked blocks off of tables, I rolled them into other block structures, and I generally toppled every topplable thing for twenty minutes. I took screenshots of myself amidst the ruins. I found more crystals within them; the bastards had been holding out on me. I’ve never played an RPG featuring this amount of interaction with the environment, and I can only hope that the full game utilizes this to its fullest extent, because I can see all sorts of fun, Angry Birds-esque possibilities for this mechanic.

It appears that the destructible environment physics will make its way into battle at least, as the demo’s boss is capable of laying waste to city structures with its massive sword and you are also able to use them to your advantage. More on that later..

The Weirdnessfinal fantasy xv platinum demo creature morph

One of the most underutilized and fascinating places for a story to take place is in dreams because literally anything can happen. Japan gets this in ways the West doesn’t seem to grasp (compare the lush metaphoric insanity of Paprika to the sterile land literalness of Inception) and this demo shows us that by embracing the weird and using it to demonstrate what I assume are going to be mechanics in the final game using things that could only happen in dreams (or video games).

So are we not going to talk about the fact that I turned into a car? ‘Kay. It’s cool. Nah, I’m not leaving this alone. I assume that this was just to quickly show off the driving mechanics that are going to factor into the main game, but at a few points in the house level you can step on a switch and turn into a car and just…you know…drive around as a car version of you. I was disappointed that I couldn’t roadkill the enemies, but it served as a faster way to explore the area, at least. It was definitely not the sort of thing I was expecting when I launched this demo, though.

In the city I was able to take the form of ox and antelope-like creatures and battle foes with hoof and antler too. Why? Why not? That’s why. Not sure what this is going to represent in the actual game, whether there will be playable animals or actual shape-shifting, but consider me intrigued.

I was a little disappointed that the story wasn’t more refined and complete with context, but I have a feeling that this standalone dream sequence will fit into the main narrative in an interesting way and make more sense when we finally get to play FFXV. But for the time being it was a very unusual way to showcase a game and I appreciate that. It made it nothing if not memorable.

final fantasy xv platinum demo boss iron giantThe Combat

This was shockingly the deepest and most interesting part of the demo, and perhaps the smallest. Most of your time is spent wandering and exploring (or perhaps toppling toy block structures), and the enemies you meet don’t really fight back, which is no fun. They’re pretty much there for target practice for the new magic system, where you hurl area-of-effect attacks at baddies like grenades. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but it’s a different approach at least.

Combat is 100% real time, but lest anybody considers referring to it as “button-mashing”, you continuously attack by holding down the button, so joke’s on them. You can defend similarly and I can see timing and reading your opponents’ moves being very important to success. You don’t really get a taste of a real fight until the boss appears at the end, and then with a little experimentation, you can find that there is a lot going on in FFXV’s combat.

There is a switch that lets you spawn the towering, Dark Souls-esque Iron Giant boss as many times as you like, and I suggest you do so because there’s a lot to play with here. I did a lot of things and I’m not even sure how I did them all since the demo offers little instruction and the Giant isn’t messing around. My experience was pretty much “push a button and watch something awesome happen”.

There was a button that let me warp through the air to a structure so I could get above the boss and then fly back at him to deliver a mid-air combo and dodge (although he was capable of knocking the structures I warped to down, which was cool), I’m pretty sure I threw a kunai at him at some point, and there was even a badass limit break attack. And the different weapons had different abilities as well. For instance, the massive broadsword gave me the ability to actually block, parry, and knock back the gigantic knight’s attack. This may shape up to be the most exciting real time combat system in a RPG ever.

Carbunclefinal fantasy xv platinum demo carbuncle

A magical fox/unicorn creature whose squeaks manifest themselves as texts on your cellphone, complete with emoji? Didn’t I already cover the whole “dream weirdness” thing? Yeah, but Carby is an old friend -practically the only thing linking this story to the rest of the series- and deserves her (his?) own section here for two reasons. First, that thing is goddamn adorable and looks amazing. Second, they’re saying the only way to get her in the final game is to play the FFXV Platinum Demo.

That’s right, your guide through this dreamscape will be available as a summon when the game launches should you take the time to check out this fairly brief demo. And who wouldn’t want that? Look at that face! I don’t think there’s any visual image that sells the quality of these graphics like this little guy. If you want some Ruby Light on your side in September, make sure you get this sucker played by then.

At the end of the demo, you have the option to rename Carbuncle, which is a nice little bit of customization that may likely backfire if somebody gets a little creative with their crass humor without realizing this will be transferred to the final game, but that’s part of the fun.

Afterwards, Square goes all pushy car salesmen on us and asked you if you want to order the game RIGHT NOW! No, Square. Not half a year ahead of release with no incentives to speak of, thank you. They then let you know that you can go back into the demo and order it from there any time you want, hence the prominent “Order Final Fantasy XV” option on the main menu. Or you know, there are actual retailers and PlayStation Network and Xbox Live too. I don’t think I’ll have trouble figuring out how to order the game when and if I decide to buy it, Square, but I appreciate the thought. I don’t know that I’m 100% sold on returning to the Final Fantasy fold after years of disappointment, but if nothing else this demo was an encouraging sign that a great JRPG could potentially greet us in September. I’ll be waiting.

Four Things That the Sword Art Online Games are Getting Totally Wrong

If there’s any television show that should be a snap to make into an epic JRPG it’s the popular anime Sword Art Online. The entire is premise about being trapped in a video game, right? The story, characters, themes, and everything else about it is steeped in gamer culture. Being a fanboy of the series who has written extensively about it, when it was announced that the games were going to be coming to a PlayStation 4 near me, I knew that I’d be playing them at my earliest convenience.

That convenience didn’t come as soon as I’d hoped, but maybe that was for the better, as I’d nearly preordered Sword Art Online: Lost Song, but decided against it due to a little thing called Fallout 4 coming out at the same time. I’d have to say I made a good call because having finally stepped into the world of one of my favorite anime series for myself, I wasn’t exactly greeted with the level of quality I’d hoped for.

While the source material rewrote the book on modern cyberpunk and fantasy, the games seem happy to phone it in while avoiding giving the gamer the things they would almost invariably want from a video game based on Sword Art Online. With two games released in the West so far and a third coming this year, maybe it’s time to look at what’s working and -more importantly- what isn’t and dream that someday fans will get the game they deserve. Here are the four biggest problems keeping us from Nerve Gear Nirvana.

sword art online hollow fragment character create

Why even bother?

The Player Character

Right off the bat in Sword Art Online: Re: Hollow Fragment, the game invites the player to create their own character. This is a video game based on a fictional MMORPG, so character creation should obviously be the very first order of business, right? No surprise there. Well… maybe one. You see, once gameplay begins it becomes abundantly clear that you are not your character. You are Kirito, SAO’s earnestly bland protagonist.

So why bother? Your short, chubby, dark-skinned, heterochromatic, long-haired redhead warrior heroine appears in Kirito’s place in-game, but is replaced with the tall, lanky, short brunette-haired, brown-eyed, fair-skinned male protagonist in all story aspects, which is just weird and pulls you right out of any sense of immersion or investment concerning your character. I actually went to my room early on, found a desk where you can change your character’s appearance, and returned my avatar to the default. It was just too irritating and distracting to have such a massive discrepancy between cutscenes and gameplay. The sequel, Lost Song, failed to change this nonsense, and it looks like the next game won’t either.

When anybody watches the anime or reads the manga and imagined a video game based on them, I’m fairly certain they are all dreaming of creating their own character from the ground up and exploring the world of SAO on their own terms, having their own adventures. Such a potentially massive world and with great concepts shouldn’t be chained to one character’s experiences. It not only limits the story, but it makes me as a fan much less likely to make use of the variety of weapons available because Kirito always uses his trademark swords. It’d feel weird to give him a spear or sword and shield combo or a bow, as much as I kind of want to try them out as a gamer.

Add in the fact that the writing in the games is worlds below the source material and the story starts to feel like bad fan fiction involving great characters that had so much more depth in their original forms. The decision to focus on vapid versions of established characters helps create a mediocre experience that’s hamstrung by writers doing a crap job trying to write characters they clearly don’t get. Why not let just let players create their own character and make a new cast of supporting characters stuck inside of SAO and let the primary cast make a few special appearances instead?

SWORD ART ONLINE Re: Hollow Fragment romance dialogue

Oh, Kirito, you sweet talker you.

Romance

This is where it goes from odd to plain damn weird. Kirito is married to Asuna. So why put harem dating simulation elements in the game when they are forcing you to play as a monogamous hero? And why is his sister one of the romance options? The content in Hollow Fragment was kept fairly vague in terms of actual sex  (sorry, no glopping), but the fact that you are clearly dating the other girls and can hold their hands in front of Asuna and carry them into your bedroom for a snuggle time cutscene among other things is strange to say the least.

The mechanics themselves are irritating, bordering on moronic. I love the idea of hanging out with the other characters while contextually conversing with them and building relationships as you take in the sights around town together, but the conversations are literally gibberish and your options to respond to each remark are “Keep it up!” and “That’s it!” represented by “Nice!” and “…”, respectively, with one being right and one wrong. As lame as it is confusing. And I’m not even going to get into the bizarre and random  flow of the inane dialogue you’re responding to.

But it’s still a great idea, even if the execution was truly horrible and out of place in Kirito’s story. But rather than improve on this germ of a good idea, they scrapped the whole thing for Lost Song. Maybe it’s for the better considering the juvenile nature of the writing and dedication to the established characters, but I think if they thought it through a little better and let players create their own character, a robust romance system would make a great addition to a future game.

Sword Art Online Lost Song combat

Oh, look. More things to kil…[snore]

Combat

So how best to do combat in a game based on an action-packed anime based around a fictional MMORPG? The first two games use a hybrid real-time turn-based system favored by classic games like World of Warcraft and Knights of the Old Republic, which sounds perfect, but is surprisingly dull in execution.

First off, the enemies are extremely plentiful and weak, weak, weak so you can button mash or auto-attack your way through most any encounter, at least for a good chunk of the game. Being Kirito means being OP as hell, which equals boring combat. At its most complicated, you just cycle through activating your sword skills (which are sorely lacking in variety) and waiting for the cooldown to finish to activate them each again. The most exciting thing offered by fighting in Hollow Fragment was the ability to compliment your partner’s performance, making them more likely to favor the actions you praise them for. Lost Song offered airborne combat, which is cool, but hardly a world-beating innovation. Beyond these little gimmicks, fighting is pretty much just grinding as a means to an end when it should be the funnest part of the game.

In addition to more of a challenge and better realized and defined combat techniques, what these games need more than anything else is larger scale. Hollow Fragment had parties of two, the sequel only increased this by one, and the next game appears to have four member parties and fully real time combat. Boss battles gather larger parties, but it’s mostly just for show. Even with each game slowly increasing the party size, with the actual combat being so bland the key to making future games awesome will be stronger challenges and a strategy component.

Hollow Fragment hinted at guild management, but the player never got to do any of it. But what if you could? Recruiting NPC’s and building multiple parties to assign to gather materials and intel across the virtual world while choosing, training, and equipping your own party members en route to less plentiful but more challenging enemy encounters would go a long way to adding a sense of intrigue and satisfaction to the combat. Watching your party execute your strategies as you direct them and chip in with your own abilities would be way more fun than just watching your cooldown meters as you effortlessly mow down hordes of enemies that respawn almost instantly and can’t even threaten you to complete endless arbitrary “kill x number of y enemies” quests.

The Central Theme

sword art online asuna reflection

More genuine artistry in one image than in an entire game…

What sets Sword Art Online as a series apart from most anime featuring invincible sword-swinging heroes is its dedication to its themes and social messages. It’s one of the only works out there that treats geek lifestyles as something other than a joke to be snickered at and presents literally living in a video game as a possible legitimate alternative to the real world for some people. I mean, life isn’t ever fair, but what if it could be?

In video games there are rules that must be obeyed and conscious balancing so that everybody has a fair shot. And with virtual reality right around the corner, how long until we get a game like SAO where you could potentially live, love, and even sleep inside of a video game world you understand with like-minded people rather than deal with the unpredictable horrors of socializing in the real world?

I have yet to see or hear of any of these elements presented meaningfully in the games. Although for the continuation of the Aincrad arc in Hollow Fragment it might not make sense, I feel like the ideal SAO game would have an Assassin’s Creed element where the player is able to log in and out of the game to accomplish things irl as well as in-game too, similar to the second season. Seeing the real lives of the characters and contrasting their struggles and real life personalities with their in-game avatars would be a fantastic device for exploring the concepts of the source material using the very medium it represents.  

Let’s go back to the whole “romancing your own sister” thing for a second. In the first season, Kirito joins up with Leafa to rescue Asuna and there’s clear romantic tension between the two of them, but it isn’t until later that he realizes that Leafa is actually his own sister Sugu’s avatar. In the show, this was another interesting commentary on the nature and possible pitfalls of virtual life, but in Hollow Fragment, it was just lame and icky. Kirito and Leafa recognize each other are instantly in that story, but it didn’t stop the writers from deciding a cliche “whoops, I fell and landed on your boobs” groping scene was the best way to handle that situation. Every story aspect of a great SAO game should point back at the main theme of comparing and contrasting people’s real and virtual lives. Anything else comes off as just a pile of juvenile harem tropes.  

This year will see the release of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, which will take gamers back to a rebuilt version of Aincrad. It’s hard to say how that’s going to turn out, but hopefully future games with the property can expand the experience a bit beyond hack and slashing and really dig into what make SAO such a special and unique property instead of making it just like every halfass shonen anime property out there.

Why Gamers Should be Clamoring for Dragon’s Dogma 2

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As I pointed out last week, Japanese role playing games have a habit of lazy game design taking away whatever points are earned by conceptual originality or gameplay depth. As a result of Western properties dominating the AAA role-playing scene in recent years, some Japanese developers have begun abandoning their native established anime format and borrowing heavily from us with good results.

FromSoftware has become a perennial favorite amongst hardcore gamers for combining Western fantasy mythology with ruthless old-school video game difficulty and exceptional combat mechanics, but at one point last gen, Capcom produced a true gem as well. Dragon’s Dogma became the fastest-selling new intellectual property in gaming for the PS3/Xbox 360 era and featured some mechanics that could have been real game changers. The expanded edition, Dark Arisen, has recently made its PC debut after all this time, but the late port has just served to raise the question “where is the sequel”?

Well technically, there has been a sequel, albeit a free-to-play multiplayer title only released in Japan last summer. The results are encouraging, with Dragon’s Dogma Online’s success leading Capcom earlier this month to reaffirm their statement after the first game’s release that they are discussing plans to continue the franchise. This is potentially great news (if you can call such a vague declaration news), but I think it’s about time we started asking for more than possible plans.dragons dogma hydra

Personally, I’m a little baffled that after over three years of anticipation, the best they have to offer Western gamers is a PC port and some maybes. The first game was a true breath of fresh air; a rare innovative JRPG that was thrilling all by itself, but seemed to promise so much more to come. Dragon’s Dogma is a flawed but rock-solid foundation to build a franchise to rival Dark Souls, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, and The Witcher for fantasy role-playing supremacy. It just needs Capcom to commit to it.

In case you need a refresher or haven’t yet played it, let’s review what made this game stand out from the competition. Well, there’s the combat, for one. What Dragon’s Dogma brings to the table here is borrowed from the PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus. instead of lamely hitting and running while hacking at gigantic beasts’ ankles or whatever, you can actually climb onto the larger enemies and attack them that way, which makes for a very epic feel to monster battles. I’m surprised that this hasn’t already become as standard in real time melee combat as cover mechanics have become in shooters. I miss it already.

But the most important and tantalizing innovation that makes me pine for more is the pawn system; Dragon’s Dogma’s persistent multiplayer element and the AI that drives it. Basically, every player creates his or her character along with a single “pawn” to accompany them. Each player’s pawn learns as it adventures and this is where it gets interesting. They’d remember enemy weaknesses, quest objectives, hidden treasure locations, and the like. And each pawn is placed in an online pool from which other gamers can add them -along with their skills and expertise- to their own party. This was an awesome experience.

dragons dogma pawn creationIf you had a pawn in your party who had experience fighting a given enemy, they would not only choose appropriate attacks, but they’d shout out their weaknesses and also pathfind on quests they’re familiar with. You could review other players’ pawns based on their performance and receive reviews of your own pawn from players who’d borrowed them as well. This player-driven companion system might be the most promising innovation RPGs have seen in a long time and coupled with the intense party-based combat, made for a truly engrossing game in spite of a pretty small world and meager story.

That is to say that while Dragon’s Dogma was one of the most exciting games of 2012, the most exciting thing about it was the prospects for the future of the franchise. As great as it was, there was plenty of room for improvement. More pawn customizations, a larger persistent world, better characters and story, co-op multiplayer, even better AI; in some ways the original game almost felt like a precursor to a forthcoming game that would take the role playing genre to another level. And although Capcom has been beaten to that punch by The Witcher 3, I for one am still waiting for them to continue what they started with the first game and deliver a proper AAA sequel to us.      

I’m haunted by memories of in-game nights spent lost in the darkness and being ambushed by unseen horrors, delighted by recollections of running up a path to a rocky precipice while my pawns engaged a huge armored cyclops and leaping onto its back from above, causing it to rip off its helmet in a rage to get at me as I stabbed at its neck, and nostalgic for the time I journeyed with Tyrion Lannister in pawn form, eventually sending him back to his owner with the message “It was an honor”.dragons dogma cyclops climb

But I’m also itched remembering constant backtracking across a small map, bland characters, and so many pawns ending up looking pretty alike due to a pretty small number of outfits. That, and Tyrion should’ve had an axe, not a sword. More weapon variety would be awesome. These are the sorts of things that would likely be remedied in a sequel, and some were already addressed in Dark Arisen. But damn it, we still want more.

Capcom is a major studio with the resources to make a massive mark on the RPG market with a series as exciting as Dragon’s Dogma. It’s bad enough that Western PlayStation and Xbox owners are deprived of Monster Hunter, but I really can’t understand their tentativeness to go all in while FromSoftware continues to garner accolades and rack up sales. They’ve explicitly stated that the reception of and feedback from the PC port is going to be a deciding factor on whether or not we ever see a new game, so if we’re going to support this franchise and encourage Capcom to make it into the rampaging genre behemoth it could be, now’s the time.

If you’re a PC gamer and you haven’t checked it out yet or are looking to relive your time as the Arisen and take a fresh new generation of pawns out to slay massive beasts once again, that’s plenty of incentive to travel back to Gransys. The rest of us can commence begging Capcom to please allow us to give them $60 for a new installment -or at the very least, a localization of Dragon’s Dogma Online .

It’s been almost four years and although there is not a shortage of quality games vying for our time and financial attention, my mind keeps wandering back to the theoretical sequel to a RPG that is too seldom discussed. It’s time we started discussing it in order to help make that sequel a reality.

  

Five Things Modern RPGs Need to Learn to Stay Relevant

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Role playing games have been my favorite video game genre since the early ‘90s and my list of all-time favorite games reads a lot like a list of the best they’ve had to offer. I’m always on the lookout for new and exciting ideas or just a really solid role-playing experience, but more and more often I’m finding myself underwhelmed by what I find. 

Even with the many games I really enjoy, it seems like there’s always something that just bugs the crap out of me. Something that would have made a good game a great game or a mediocre game a good game if the developer had just thought it through a little differently. There are a lot of cliches and bad habits that have become standard operating procedure, especially in low budget turn-based JRPGs, that need to be reconsidered to bring the genre back to a place where they can be the toast of the gaming world again and not just something hardcore gamers play out of force of habit.

There’s still a lot of quality out there, but it can sometimes feel like you’re playing a retro title even when you’re paying a premium price. Here are five things that aspiring role playing game developers should keep in mind if they want to get on the level of BioWare or classic Square and crank out some modern RPG classics instead of forgettable bargain bin bait.  

persona 4 dialogue laundry

I feel like we might be meandering away from the main plot a bit…

Gamers gotta game

First and foremost, some developers need to learn that when we purchase a video game, the thing we want to do the very most is PLAY IT. I feel like maybe I should have typed that in Japanese. At some point during the original PlayStation era, RPGs fell in love with cutscenes. At the time it was pretty amazing. I mean, a video game with movies in it? Best of both worlds, baby! But I think the sheen has worn off. In fact, it’s downright dilapidated at times and AAA games like Final Fantasy tend to overdo it. Making epic cutscenes is an expensive process and I can’t help but feel that the money could be better spent at times, considering it’s something that stops the gameplay dead in its tracks and keeps gamers from the game.

The visual novel format is a cheaper way to make cutscenes that use series’ of static or semi-animated images combined with voiceovers for a more comic bookish effect. It’s become the favorite storytelling tool for low budget JRPGs and it’s still effective, but the problem with that is with fewer budgetary constraints sometimes the writers don’t know when to rein it in so scenes can go on too long. More on that later.

The biggest problem with both of these is that they pull the player out of the game. We are no longer gaming, we are just watching. In small doses, this is fine, but especially in the early going, games need to find better ways to introduce the story to players and keep the gameplay rolling at the same time. Gamers are getting older and our free time is getting less, so modern games need to learn how to keep us playing lest we become disinvolved. The differences between film and video games are becoming more apparent and if anything, games have more storytelling potential due to their interactivity. It’s a shame to bog dynamic interactive entertainment down with too many lengthy bouts of passive storytelling.

Persona 3 and 4 were the gold standard JRPGs of their generation, but each of them took several hours before the player did much more than watch characters converse. That’s just not going to work anymore. I’m hoping Persona 5 puts players in control of their destiny right off the bat and unfolds the story through more actual gameplay segments rather than just showing us a bunch of epic-length visual novel movies as an intro.

skyrim-book

Cool story, bro. The hundred hours of gameplay would’ve felt totally empty without it.

Don’t text and drive

My opening theme for this list is video game writers who don’t seem to have editors. Interrupting gameplay for hours at a time is going is maybe the first and foremost sin that modern RPGs are struggling with these days, but some games feel the need to barrage you with information almost constantly and that can be annoying as well. And it’s not mostly Japan doing it this time.

Last week I praised Wasteland 2 and its old-school sink-or-swim approach to party-building and gameplay. This week, I’m criticizing it for making me have the exact same conversations over and over and over and interrupting my explorations with walls of text describing things I could see for myself. It seems like every character you meet has a long list of dialogue options and they were all differently worded ways of saying the exact same thing. You can get good information and quests in unexpected places so all available options need to be checked out, but asking every NPC the same line of questions and having them give you the same answers in return just led to me mindlessly skipping through the conversations because I just didn’t care, and that is a big no-no.

If I, the gamer, don’t care about what’s currently going on in the game, somebody is not doing their job. Redundancy is the father of boredom and while some gamers are all about the lore, I think we can admit that a lot of games overdo it. The beloved Elder Scrolls series throws piles of books at you, all filled with flavor text.

Part of me wants to read it all -I’m a reader and I naturally want to absorb every word placed before mine eyes- but most of me wishes they’d take that enthusiasm for their world and use it to give their characters more personality instead of writing satirical in-game erotic novels that few gamers are going to have the time or patience for in a game that will eat at least a hundred hours of your life in exploration alone. Anything that stops you mid-game and beckons you to read completely unnecessary or redundant information for minutes on end is a liability. Keep the story flowing instead.  

omega quintet text quiet

So all this silent texting as dialogue is your doing, Teeny?

Give voices to the voiceless

Moving along in this same vein, the excess of writing has led some games to not bother with voiceover at all at times. And the ones that do this are also the ones who are prone to half-assing in other areas as well. I’m an old schooler so I’m well aware that gaming didn’t always have fancy voice acting and most of my favorite games of all time did not. But in the modern age you’ve got to pick your format and stick with it.

Classic and retro games work with only text dialogue as a single format and it’s effective. Undertale used different tones for characters to convey the illusion of individual voices without voiceover. These are immersive because they are consistent. But some modern games flip back and forth between formats and as a result, they break immersion and often annoy the player.

Switching between voiced and unvoiced dialogue is something that just shouldn’t be happening anymore. It’d be like watching a blockbuster film and having it switch between speech and silent film acting from scene to scene. Unless it’s some deliberately weird artistic experimental indie thing, all it’s going to do is annoy the viewer. And even if it is, the result will be be the same for most. Ni no Kuni was terrible about this. Let’s hope the upcoming sequel does better.  

Right now I’m playing through Omega Quintent and I’ve got to say, this is killing me. There are all of these inane conversations that drag on and on and seem to almost go in circles. Sometimes the characters’ mouths are animated and they speak, and sometimes they just stand there and there’s text.

Look, man, if you’re going to visual novel us to death, I think in this day and age we at least deserve full voice acting. If the character dialogue is so unimportant that you convey it with only a static image and some text in a full retail release, why even have it in there interrupting our gameplay? It’s hard to get invested in character and story when you’re constantly being reminded that the developers totally half-assed it. If it’s not important enough to bother with voiceover for it, it’s probably not important enough to leave in the finished product.

mass effect 2 planet scan

Sooooo glad I spent the last three hours searching for Element Zero and finding every other possible element instead. Really fulfilling. Seriously, thanks BioW…..zzzzzz…

Time is (not) on my side

Like I said before, most gamers are all grown up now. This means fewer carefree weekends and summers spent gaming until six in the morning. We’ve got jobs, families, alcoholism, clinical depression, and various other adult responsibilities to attend to and that makes game time a privilege. That is to say that we need to get more content in less time as opposed to when we were little gamerlings with nothing but time on our hands.

To put it in RPG terms, adult gamers have enough grind in our real lives that we don’t really need more of it in our video games. The constant running back and forth performing menial tasks and farming random drops that still defines the genre is becoming outdated as other games focus on meaningful content instead of filler. Thirty or forty hours is enough time to tell a great story and give players plenty of game for their dollar. And really, few games have more than that. But a lot of them double and triple that length by running players around in circles just for the hell of it.

It’s often disguised as incentive, but said incentives usually feel pretty mandatory. As gamers, we want the best gear and the most options and the coolest skills and will inevitably feel that if we skip past all of the side missions we’ll be missing out on a serious chunk of the experience. We want the rewards, but getting them shouldn’t feel like a chore. It’s a game. Nothing should feel like a chore. And making enemies overpowered so you have spend hours fighting weaker ones in areas you’ve already cleared to level up and progress? Just no.

This is another trope that Japan is slow on the draw to change, but Western devs fall into the trap as well. Mass Effect 2 earned some criticism with their planet-scanning mini-game, which had gamers combing over the surface of random planets in order to obtain materials for upgrades, many of which were necessary for your crew to make it to the end of the game alive. BioWare actually took gamers’ complaints to heart and eliminated it in the next game, creating actual side quests and multiplayer content (you know: fun things) instead. It’s time other devs started respecting their players’ time a little and keep the fetch-and-farm quests to a minimum.    

final fantasy XIII sazh figure it out

Jesus, man, I just wanted to know what all this fal’Cie, l’Cie, crystarium nonsense you guys keep spouting is about. Don’t bite my head off.

Keep it (semi) simple, stupid

A lot of the same games who are committing these sins against modern storytelling try to make up for it with opaque, esoteric gameplay mechanics. I get that there is a subsidiary of role playing gamers who live for this sort of thing; the stacking and linking of skills and stats and memorization and calculation of optimum efficiency to create overpowered builds and invincible tactics.

I’m not saying that these things shouldn’t exist, but they really need to be introduced in a manner that is more organic, lest some poor soul trying to get into RPGs to see what all the fuss is about wanders in out of curiosity and gets the genre ruined for them forever after being presented with gameplay that appears to be some form of advanced calculus on top of a nonsensical plot.

Games like Record of Agarest War 2 and (again) Omega Quintet look and sound like great, inviting concepts. Adventure with a diverse array of pretty ladies in a fantasy landscape and choose one of them to father your child, who grows up and repeats the process in the next segment of the game! An idol simulator where you manage a J-pop group right down to costumes and dance moves and use music to save the world! Then after being subjected to a metric ton of inane anime cliches you get to actually play and realize the game has done a crap job of explaining how it works.

You’ve got all of these options and complicated mechanics and the tutorials state only the most obvious or useless things and leave the rest to give you a headache while you clumsily trial-and-error your way through. Some players are hardcore enough to stick with it and spend hours figuring it all out, and others can just power through using only the basics and ignoring the finer points but it’s not at all hard to see why most gamers avoid this stuff like the plague. All that time spent on characters putting their boobs on each other and yelling in text, and almost nothing explaining these complex battle and leveling systems.

This brings us to another growing problem with RPG storytelling. Either there are a bunch of vague and specific things you MUST DO to get the “true ending” -which we often find out too late- or there are other similar features or aspects that are made inaccessible to beginning players. Who really wants to play a game for for fifty-plus hours and then find out they missed out on something important or get a crap ending after feeling like they did everything right because they needed to play the whole game with a walkthrough in their lap, making sure they checked off the list of ridiculously specific things that were never referenced in-game yet needed to be done, to get the not crap ending? Goddamn nobody. That’s who.  

In the case of Final Fantasy XIII, the convoluted plot and its bizarre terminology wasn’t really explained at all until dozens of hours in, leading some confused gamers to tap out early from sheer aggravation. Nobody wants to listen to gibberish for hours on end and gamers not only want to know what’s going on, but they want to know what’s expected of them beyond “kill those things” as well.

If RPGs as a genre are ever going to find their way back to a Final Fantasy VII level of popularity, they need to remember how to marry depth to simplicity and excite players to learn the mechanics without burying them in unnecessary, unexplained complexities early on. Leave the depth in the game, but ease gamers into the mechanics bit by bit. Put plenty of secrets and bonuses in, but don’t make them an absolute necessity to get a decent ending. Make games with story and gameplay that can be enjoyed by everyone from start to finish with minimal stress or a feeling of missing out. Do that and we may see another role playing golden age on the horizon. 

Wasteland 2 Shows Modern RPGs How to Party

wasteland

Late last year, a PC role playing game made its appearance on consoles with surprisingly little fanfare considering it arrived a month ahead of its blood relative which just happened to be the most anticipated game of 2015 for many. In 1988, the first Wasteland introduced many gamers to the post-apocalyptic RPG. That Interplay Productions classic laid the groundwork for what would become Fallout and was then practically forgotten as its spiritual successor’s popularity took off.

Since then the Fallout franchise has changed hands and become a universal open-world role-playing standard among gamers under Bethesda, but PC old schoolers never stopped pining for the classic games. Well, Interplay founder Brian Fargo -now running inXile Entertainment- finally picked up where he left off all those years ago and returned post-apocalyptic exploration to its turn-based roots with Wasteland 2 and console gamers were invited too when the Director’s Cut edition made its way to the PS4 and Xbox One last October.

You’d think this would have been bigger news, and I admittedly bided my time a bit to make sure I’d have time to enjoy this one to the fullest without Fallout 4 looming right around the corner, but I knew this game and I would be meeting one fine day. And once I got around to it, I pretty much fell in love with Wasteland 2 before I even began playing it in earnest for one simple reason: you get to build your own party.wasteland 2 character creator

I hadn’t thought about this, but it has been a really, really long time since I had the opportunity to craft a party of my very own. I mean when was the last time I got to create a full team of adventurers from the ground up? Some Ultima or Might and Magic game from the 90’s? I CAN’T REMEMBER! And that, my friends, is just not right. It’s one thing to choose from a selection of existing characters or shape their skills as they level up, but another experience entirely to make them exactly who and what you want them to be from the get-go down to clothing, ethnicity, and even an optional biography. It’s been so long I forgot how satisfying it can be.

The next obvious question in that train of thought was “why don’t more games do this?” What kind of filthy casual wouldn’t want to lovingly craft their very own group of adventurers? Why are we being robbed of this classic gaming experience? It’s pretty much standard operating procedure to have gamers create their lead character in modern solo RPGs, but in party-based games you pretty much get what you get and have to work from there.

The focus on story and characters is one reason we don’t see these kinds of games very much any more, but another reason is the increased prevalence of handholding. As games have become more popular, more casual folk are playing them, and while they may fail at hardcore RPGing, their money is at least as green as yours or mine and there’s more of them, so they win.

In the old days, you’d hit a brick wall in-game and could spend hours just searching for a way to proceed. These days, if you run into a locked door, relax; the key is almost certain to be in the same room with you. Ditto any passwords or what have you that you need to progress. And rest assured the game will make damn sure that there is a character is in your party that will have any skills you might need complete with on-screen prompts to make using them insultingly obvious.

wasteland 2 statistics skills

Choose wisely.

In a game like Wasteland 2, if you don’t think about your character builds and necessary skills, you’re going to have a bad time. The game doesn’t give a damn if you didn’t think to give any characters enough hacking skills or the ability to pick locks. You ain’t getting in that computer or door until you beef up your skills. Sucks to be you, loser.

Need more charisma to get the outcome you wanted? Should’ve thought of that before. And keep in mind that different conversation options demand specialized posterior-themed social skills to boot (Smart Ass, Kiss Ass, Hard Ass) so raw base stats won’t get it done either. Didn’t think you’d need anyone with a demolition skill or high perception? Have fun being decimated by hidden traps and mines. Thought it’d be a good idea to make a team of AR specialists? Good luck finding enough ammo for everybody’s rifles while the game gives you endless shotgun shells and pistol rounds. Hope you’ve got some leadership to stop your followers from running into the enemies’ teeth and getting themselves killed too. Oh, and your characters will permadie if you don’t have a surgeon on hand to operate promptly when they go down.  Flee, casuals! Flee from this game!

Using angles and cover wisely, gauging distance, assessing risk and reward based on your characters’ individual skillsets; this is what strategy role-playing is supposed to be about. The industry has largely moved towards real time combat, but I hope and pray there will always be a place for thoughtful, stat-crunching, turn-based SRPGs because for those of us who enjoy that style of gameplay, there’s no substitute for the real deal.    

wasteland 2 combat

100% is the sweetest number.

Wasteland 2 may look and play like something from the early ‘00s, complete with scattered voice acting, regular crashes when loading, a Bethesda level of bugs, and way too much redundant text conversation, but given the fact that they pretty much do not make games like this anymore, it’s more than worth it if you’re the kind of gamer who cringed at the thought of Fallout becoming a FPS franchise because you actually enjoy having your successes and failures hinged on cold, unfeeling percentages and statistics.

Given the lack of coverage for the long-awaited sequel to the game that was Fallout’s daddy, I’ve got to assume we’re a dying breed. Modern gamers don’t really seem to want the traditional role-playing experience where life and death rests on the roll of the virtual dice and your characters are exactly what you make them and nothing more, but hats off to inXile for keeping the torch burning.

My bumpy trip to the original post-apocalyptic RPG franchise was totally worth it if for no other reason than to once again experience the increasingly rare video game-exclusive joy of creating a party out of nothing and sending them out to explore a hostile and indifferent world not knowing what to expect, but hoping they have what it takes to succeed. And as a bonus, many other characters can join your party and offer their own skills and commentary letting you practically recruit your own army to support your core party.

With great customization comes great responsibility and playing a game that puts my own progress and survival on my own head is rewarding more often than it is frustrating. There’s always a way to proceed, and always a way to obtain the means to do so; you just have to plan for all contingencies and work for what you don’t have yet. Such is life, both in the radioactive wasteland and out, and that’s why the industry needs more games like this.

Not every gamer wants to be pampered with a mandatory party specially designed to beat the next level or limited to a bunch of cookie cutter standard classes. Sometimes, win or lose, we want the option to make a party that’s all ours and Wasteland 2 gave me just that. That and a massive stash of virtual E.T. cartridges buried in the desert, a raider who sings “Bohemian Rhapsody” to himself, and a countryside full of screaming goats. What more could a gamer want?     

Lost in the Wasteland: Five Features That Are Missing in Fallout 4

fallout

All right, we’ve all had time to bask in the glory of Bethesda’s latest digital life-consuming menace and weigh the insane hype and expectations against the finished product. The verdict is positive all around (barring the expected internet trolls) and while it’s not the surefire runaway winner for Game of the Year we were expecting after E3 thanks to an extremely great lineup of games in 2015, it is still arguably the single most addictive gaming experience there is.

That said, Fallout 4 could have been better. Even barring the occasionally last gen visuals, typical bugs and glitches, and dodgy controls there is room for improvement. Normally, that’s a pretty impotent criticism, but in this case the issue is that recent Fallout titles have had some rock solid features that have been stripped from the latest installment. Some of are assuredly decisions made in an attempt to mainstream their next big thing to make it more accessible to non-RPGers, some are possibly oversights, and others are just baffling. Here are five that I miss.

Gear Maintenance

fallout 3 repair maintenance pip boy

This is one feature that isn’t going to be missed by everyone, but for those of us who treat our open world RPG’s like second lives where we enjoy the challenges of struggling for survival, it’s an immediately noticeable annoyance. In previous games gear would degenerate with use and by taking damage, making it vital for players to pay attention and keep their stuff in working order.

Needing to repair and maintain your gear weighed heavily on the economics of previous games and made it profitable and worthwhile to invest points in perks that allowed you to use parts from similar gear to repair your favorite weapons and armour in Fallout 3 and New Vegas rather than burn money. You could also repair looted gear to sell at a premium price, increasing profits and lightening your load at the same time.

But I think what I miss the most is not being able to target enemies’ weaponry in VATS so you could shoot the gun out of their hand Wild West style. If you saw a particularly tough super mutant with a rocket launcher in play, you could snipe it and make it unusable to level the playing field a bit, but doing so would render it almost useless to sell so you had to weigh options. Weapon and armour degradation added an extra layer of strategy to the game in several areas and often forced players to improvise when their preferred gear got damaged, which makes for some harrowing but satisfying Wasteland survival experiences.

Rest assured that this feature was eliminated to make Fallout 4 more palatable to inexperienced gamers. After Witcher 3, this is the first massive RPG made specifically for next-gen hardware and it’s been rightfully hyped to the gills. There’s already an overwhelming crafting and modding system in place that we’re still wrapping our heads around and I figure Bethesda decided that gear maintenance would be one step further than a lot of gamers would want to go. Crafting and settlement building were somewhat optional, after all, whereas gear is an absolute necessity. But personally, I miss the immersive effect of having to care for my weapons and armour. And speaking of optional features and immersion…

Hardcore Mode

fallout new vegas hardcore mode

Them not recommending it just makes me want to play it more.

Fallout: New Vegas was heralded by some naysayers as a glorified expansion of Fallout 3, which was itself seen as a betrayal of the earlier games due to Bethesda taking over the franchise and using the same engine as their Elder Scrolls games to make it feel more like “Oblivion with guns” than a proper Fallout title. Well, Obsidian Entertainment took the reins for New Vegas, and they were formed from the series’ original developers from Interplay Entertainment. Although it still used the same engine, a lot of gamers preferred the personality of New Vegas and its new addition, hardcore mode.

Hardcore mode ratcheted up the immersion of the Wasteland survival experience by forcing players to eat, drink, and sleep. it also added weight to previously endlessly stockpileable ammunition, making you really think about what to bring and how much before you set out. In addition, stimpacks and sleep didn’t magically heal crippled limbs; you had to see a doctor or have very specific items.

Again, a lot of gamers might be thinking “who the hell would want THAT?” but it’s called “hardcore mode” for a reason. Fallout is often at its best when you’re struggling for survival in a desolate nuclear desert making due with whatever you can scavenge or steal. Most of the numerous culinary items just clog up your inventory in the regular games, and guzzling water, injecting stimpacks, and eating iguanas on sticks to heal your wounds meant you didn’t need to bother resting at all.

Experiencing human weaknesses in a video game isn’t something we deal with often, but in games like this I feel like more realism is better, even when fighting giant fire-breathing ants and terrifying mutated chameleon monsters with a portable nuclear missile launcher. Maybe Bethesda figured the audience for this was too small or they were salty because a lot of gamers liked New Vegas more than theirs, but this option isn’t in the new game. They could have thrown gear maintenance into it as well for the sake of the dedicated survivalists out there, but instead we got nothing. Except for the awesome core game, that is. #firstworldgamerproblems

Enemy/NPC Indicators on HUD

fallout 3 ghouls enemies hud

Hey, this guy’s looking at our red ticks on his HUD! Let’s get him, boys!

I guess I can understand why the above features were cut, but if you’re going to make things easier for new gamers, why make it so much harder to find NPC’s? In previous games, you could detect enemies as red ticks on your Heads Up Display’s compass, helping orient yourself to potential threats. This was particularly helpful because enemies can be hard to spot amongst the endless landscapes and limited colour palette presented by modern Fallout games, but they will certainly see you and be on you in instant if you aren’t careful.

Raising your perception stat was a great help in the previous games because it improved your automatic enemy detection capabilities, but now that’s gone. Enemies still show up at times in Fallout 4, but I have yet to determine how or why. It seems like they only show up on your HUD after they’ve detected you, but sometimes they don’t show up then either. It seems annoyingly random and unhelpful and now I have to constantly tap the VATS button to detect enemies in time to take action before they attack.

Previously, allies would show up as green ticks on your compass, making it easy to see who was friend and foe. Now you have to go into VATS to see if they will attack or not (green health bar means friend, and red means foe). Not only that, but it can often be a pain to locate your partner or other NPC’s in your settlements, who are prone to wandering and shacking up in random structures out of sight. In the old games, you’d see a green tick on your HUD and would know where to look, but now you have to either check every nook and cranny and hope you get lucky or ring a bell to bring the entire town slowly ambling your way. Annoying.

Companion Wheel

fallout new vegas companion wheel

The words say “open inventory”, but the picture says “carry all my shit”. Nice touch.

In addition to making it harder to locate your companions, Fallout 4 unnecessarily makes it more of a challenge to control them as well. New Vegas had a simple and elegant companion wheel which allowed you to easily issue commands on the fly whether it was to trade items, give you some space, kill all opposition on sight or follow your lead, use ranged or melee attacks, stimpack, etc. It was a fast and intuitive way to get your companion to behave however you wanted them to behave.

Bethesda took a big step back in forcing you to engage your partner in conversation trees for every little thing. Good luck issuing commands mid-battle ever. You have to walk up to them, activate them, wait for their response, aim right at them, and then attempt to point them at the thing you want and hope nothing is in the way. And if you want them to switch to melee or ranged attacks, you need to go into their inventory and personally equip them with the weapon you want them to use.

But the worst part by far is the fact that they’re clingy as HELL. They want to be right up in your personal space whenever you’re out in the field. Want to snipe an enemy? They want to be in front of your scope. Looting bodies? They want to stand on those bodies so your cursor picks them up instead. Walking down a tight hallway? Sorry, they’re standing there. Try jumping over them over something. It’s like owning a cat without the cuteness (okay, Curie is pretty cute). The whole interface is a huge step back for the series. I can see leaving out something like hardcore mode as a niche addition by another dev, but bringing something as important as companion interaction back to what seems like the stone age makes no sense.    

Grenades in VATS  

fallout grenade

Cue Wilhelm scream.

I love Bethesda and all of their works, but any way you look at it the physics are notoriously janky in their games. That means that throwing explosives can be a bit…clumsy. Clumsy like “you’ll probably die if it’s not a wide open area” clumsy. Something as simple as tossing a grenade to clear a room becomes a gamble. For every time you pull it off, there’s three times you’re either gunned or rushed down trying to line up a proper throw standing in the middle of the doorway or dying stupidly because the grenade bounced off of the door frame or hit the ceiling, your idiot companion, or something else and blew you up instead.

In previous games, your good friend VATS had your back and you could place your explosive device right where you wanted it to be: at your foes’ feet. I don’t know why this is no longer possible, but it’s a horrible oversight. The grenades could at least go where you’re aiming in real time, but no. You just have to huck it in their general direction and hope it lands somewhere near them and doesn’t somehow end up killing you. I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying everything I could think of to throw a grenade in VATS, thinking I was just too dumb to figure it out because no way would they take such an essential ability out for no reason. But nope. Well I am dumb, but they did take it out.

Not that the grenades never work right and you can’t learn to compensate and use them effectively in most situations. There is a perk that will allow you to see the arc of your throw, but it’s still a remarkably clumsy endeavor. The fact that the throwing mechanic is so unwieldy to begin with probably makes Fallout 4 seem more outdated than any single other aspect and thinking about why Bethesda took out the ability to use VATS to circumvent this issue hurts my brain.

It’s an amazing game – probably the best RPG we’ve seen in ages- and we will be playing this and loving it for a long time, but it’s still frustrating that so many cool and helpful features were removed that could have made Fallout 4 the unquestioned pinnable of the genre instead of a brilliant game with some significant and unnecessary frustrations tacked on.  

Undertale Tested My Determination Like Never Before

A few weeks ago, a charming little retro-styled indie RPG named Undertale made its way to Steam. Its hook was that it wasn’t necessary to kill anyone in the game. In fact, it is probably a great idea if you don’t, at least if you want to get the amazing “true” ending. But that’s up to you. EVERYTHING in this game is up to you. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Every once in awhile we get games that advertise that the player doesn’t have to kill anyone, and that’s cool. I mean, gamers have a long, long history of shooting, kicking, punching, slashing, and generally murdering our way to good times, but at this point it’s become pretty obvious that it’s not really all that necessary. As games become more and more sophisticated in nature and increasingly complex in their mechanics, the constant barrages of violence are beginning to hold back the stories and immersion. I love me some senseless virtual violence, but it’s just true. Even the dumbest of action blockbusters doesn’t rely on violence nearly as much as the average video game.

undertale combat hug

I use the “Don’t Hug” command in most of my random irl encounters as well. Finally, some realism in gaming.

Titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored have toyed with this concept before with pretty unimpressive results. “Press x to kill/Press y to render unconscious forever” is kind of a dumb distinction to bother with. It all ends the same way, with an enemy in a heap on the ground. It’s just a way to get an arbitrary achievement or feel like a bigger badass or better person or whatever. Whether you shoot a baddie with a tranquilizer dart or a bullet, knock him out, or snap his neck has no real present in-game consequences; you’re still using violence to resolve the situation. Plus when an enemy you knocked out hours earlier is still laying there when you come back later, it seems stupid.

Undertale challenges the need for violence directly by cutting to the philosophical heart of the matter, observing at one point that “the more you kill, the easier it is to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt; the more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others.”

Nick in real life feels bad when he disturbs a cat in his yard and questions his decision to kill venomous spiders in his home even though he’s acutely arachnophobic. So why is it when you put a controller in my hand, I’m a bloodthirsty slavering killer with a thirst that can only be quenched via wanton massacre?

As a real life pacifist with an ironically powerful appreciation for fictional violence, exploring this concept was a must and Undertale scratched that itch and then some. If this was the early 90’s, this game would have been a timeless RPG classic of the era right next to the likes of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. But it’s 2015 and instead of a widespread AAA console release to much acclaim, it will likely only be experienced by indie and retro enthusiasts, and that is a shame because more than a video game, Undertale is an experience that rewards the player in ways no other game has. Minor spoilers follow, but to properly convey the originality of this title, it’s necessary to discuss some specifics.

It seems a simple concept, making a pacifism-themed video game. And at first, it is simple. Almost tongue-in-cheek pandering simple. “Press x to pacifism” simple. There’s a character literally holding your hand and leading you around at one point early in the game, lest you stumble and hurt your precious self. After spending some time getting attached to your adorable matronly guardian, Toriel, this almost-excessively kind woman protectively bars your path to adventure with a stern look on her face. How much do you want this game to continue?

undertale Toriel fight

Man, has she perfected the “disapproving parent” look or what?

You fight Toriel and up to this point, you’ve been able to talk your way out of a smattering of non-threatening fights. But this one feels overwhelming and threatens to kill you if it keeps up, and Tori just isn’t listening to you. The last save was a ways back (and believe me, the game knows this) and I ended up lashing out at my beloved protector out of sheer gaming instinct, sure that if I got her health down low enough, she’d relent.

Even when her attacks suddenly seemed to be deliberately avoiding me, I kept on, my combat tunnel vision firmly in place. And then my next strike was suddenly and inexplicably super-powerful and reduced her health instantly to zero, striking her down. She used her last breath to encourage me, and my heart broke. Cue Freddy Mercury singing “Love of My Life” in my head.   

It didn’t take long for Undertale to make me feel like a total bastard. I went into this game specifically determined not to harm a soul and feeling like this was going to be an easy thing to accomplish. I was led on and tricked into believing it would be, and then the game got me to fall right back into my violent gaming habits, assuming everything would be the way it always has been in RPG’s and turn out fine if I just hurt whatever or whoever was put in my way. I didn’t have to assume that. I didn’t have to fight back. Of course Toriel wouldn’t have hurt me. Not really. But I didn’t realize this until it was too late. And that’s how I learned in Undertale what I already knew in real life: that any time you resort to violence in a disagreement, you’ve already lost. Even when you win the fight.

undertale flowie

Takes one to know one, dick.

And you know what? The game doesn’t forget. Reload a save, start a whole new game if you want. You can go back and make your different choice, but the murderous flower Flowey -instantly one of the best villains in gaming history- knows what you did and he will not let you pretend it never happened. He doesn’t need to break the fourth wall; it doesn’t even exist to him.

The game’s combat is unique and brilliant in a lot of ways. You have to evade creative bullet hell-style attacks while determining a non-violent solution to the conflict. The monsters all have some insecurity you can exploit and some don’t even want to be there. See that jock of a horse man flexing it up? Flex right back at him a few times and he will flex himself right out of the fight trying to show you up, bro. Those aggressive dogs? They just need an introduction to the art of petting. The greedy spider girl upset you didn’t buy her insanely-priced baked goods? If you lower her attack with some donations, you might just make it out. And those two knights sent to kill you can be distracted from you by their hidden love for one another. Don’t eat the vegetable monsters, though. It’s both rude and lethal (although delicious).

The various methods of overcoming the enemies in this game are often charming, hilarious, and even practical. But like I said, the game does not always settle for making it easy for you. While much of the game is quirky and silly in tone, it doesn’t fail to put the pressure on from time to time. You see, when you spare an enemy, your reward is 0 XP. That means, if you don’t kill anyone, you stay at a weak LV 1. The whole game.  Make it to the end of your quest and you’ll find that XP isn’t “experience” like usual, but “eXecution Points” given for your dealing of death. And your LV is “Level of Violence”. The bigger the number, the more evil you are. And near the end of the game you will judged based on your deeds.    

So you can’t get stronger without killing, and without getting stronger, some of these bosses are immensely challenging, especially for this console gamer used to thumbsticks now fumbling on a keyboard. You will die, and the game will mock you for it. Choosing the nonviolent approach is HARD. And you know what? That’s how it should be. Because doing the right thing and getting the richest rewards is seldom easy.

undertale bratty catty hyped

These two seriously need their own Twitch channel.

You know what the really cool thing is? You don’t have to deal with any of it if you don’t want to. There are numerous approaches and combinations of choices and events that impact this story and if you’d rather kill them all and let Flowey sort ‘em out, you can do exactly that. Having not gone full “genocide route” yet (and I’m not sure I could bring myself to do it) I can’t attest to the results firsthand, but supposedly if you choose to bring death to the adorable denizens of the underworld, the entire tone of the game changes to something much darker and more somber as you become the thing that goes bump in the night; the monster to the monsters. Even the music changes to match this change in theme. How many games have that kind of cred?

Throughout your journey the save points keep telling you about determination in amusing and random ways that quickly become a joke. But humor usually requires an element of truth to it. Apparently my determination wasn’t up to snuff at first since the first genuine challenge I encountered led me to abandon my commitment to non-violence and murder the sweetest character in the game in spite of my intentions.

Throughout Undertale, your commitment will be tested again and again. Some bosses will physically slash non-violent options from your menu and even wipe your saves. Yes, you read that right. This game holds nothing sacred. Even your save files are fair game. If you want that true pacifist ending, you’re going to have to work for it. And if you go full genocide..well, I hear they’ve got something nasty waiting for you there too.  

It’s a shame that a game this jam-packed with wonderful characters, charm, humor, and creative ambition was released so quietly. But word-of-mouth is a powerful tool, especially in the gaming community. Undertale is an absolute must-play for old school RPG fanatics and a game that should be experienced by anybody looking for something unique that isn’t afraid to go where other games don’t. To make doing the right thing the hard thing while calling the player out on their lack of dedication or their commitment to solving problems with violence. To make a game where you can literally kill everybody, but probably can’t bring yourself to do it (they think anime is real human history…kawaaiiiiiii!). To then trick you into killing the last person you ever wanted to hurt so it can mock your stupidity.

undertale papyrus internet

Aren’t we all…

It’s the kind of game that puts a shop cheat in that you can exploit to pay for the shopkeeper’s college fund. The kind that creates a punishing challenge to find solutions where everybody can be happy and pushes you as far as it can to test your determination as a gamer. But if you overcome everything it throws at you, the finish is so rewarding that having attained the “true” ending, the game will actually encourage you to let the characters live in peace and not to restart it. Did I just say the game asks you not to play it again? Yeah. And with the emotions that Undertale inspires with its cast of broken misfits, it does feel right. It wants you to remember that perfect playthrough with all of its trials, tribulations, and feels without bothering with the subsequent half-hearted noodling just to see what other outcomes you can find.

I’ve seen message board posts of players asking how to make copies of their save files so they can preserve their perfect playthrough and then go back and play the game again without overwriting it, talking as though the characters literally do live their lives within the file. Any game that inspires that kind of sentimental thinking has got to be something special. And it is. With any luck, it’ll be a massive success, be ported to consoles, and influence a whole new way of thinking in game design. Games like Undertale are why the indie scene will always be a necessity for true gamers; to show us that you don’t need massive budgets and amazing graphics to make us think, feel, and have a great time.

Five Reasons Why Persona is the JRPG Series to Beat.

There was a time when Square Enix (known as Squaresoft back in the day) and Final Fantasy were the toast of gamedom. Timeless 16-bit classics like Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger reinvented video game storytelling as we knew it and the glut of JRPGs in the first two PlayStation eras following their mainstream breakthrough will not long be forgotten. And just in case we were going to forget, Final Fantasy X has been remastered twice and Final Fantasy VII is getting a full remake. But while most of us gladly welcome these timeless experiences back into our consoles, I have to think that it symbolizes a certain lack of ambition in Square and the genre as a whole. Turn-based JRPGs and Final Fantasy in general are just not what they used to be.

But while the most classic of role playing franchises was dominating, Atlus was quietly building up their Megami Tensei series with a wildly different approach to Square’s traditional fantasy tinged with sci-fi. It was a hit in Japan, but we in the West didn’t get a crack at the series until 2003’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. A lot of the rest of the series has since been retroactviely localized on PSN, but needless to say, we’ve missed out big time.

American gamers hit the jackpot in 2007 when Atlus got Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 localized. While the main series has been relegated to portable status, the Persona spin-off franchise quickly became the apple of JRPG fans’ collective eye, and for good reason. While Final Fantasy continues to disappoint in the modern era, Persona‘s fresh approach has kept us wanting more, and the PS2 titles hold up extremely well in comparison to most current-gen RPGs.

After several re-releases for Persona 3 and 2008’s Persona 4 and a very long wait through the entire PS3/Xbox 360 generation with only older games and a fighting game detour, Persona 5 is finally making noise. It was supposed to come out this year, but has recently been pushed back into 2016. Tears were shed. For anybody who’s never experienced these games and is curious about why they should care, here is a brief list of genre elements that have been redefined by Persona since it migrated West and why the upcoming fifth game should on the top of every JRPG fan’s wishlist.

The Musicshin megami tensei persona

This is one area where Final Fantasy has long set the standard and held the title. When Nobuo Uematsu composed the scores for that series, the simplisitic themes that defined gaming up to that point became mostly a thing of the past. Beautiful, touching, epic, sweeping scores set the mood, and now most AAA video games rely on dramatic music as heavily as films do. And to this day, Final Fantasy never disappoints on the music front.

Persona has found its own equivalent to Uematsu-san in Shoji Meguro, but their approaches are wildly different. Rather than epic classical scores, Meguro specializes in eclectic contemporary pop sounds. These games contrast against Final Fantasy‘s combination of medeivel futurism by being set in the present day, so it’s natural the music would reflect that. However, I can’t help but notice recent FF tiitles have been using more pop vocals and heavy metal as background music. It could be they’re trying to get some of that ecclecticist mojo for themselves.

Pieces of hip-hop, rock, J-pop, funk, and electronica have helped give Atlus’ flagship series its own identity and a tone very different from anything else on the market. Recent Persona soundtracks define the “something for everyone” approach and embrace both the lighter aspects of the titles and the more dramatic and forboding. Live performance of the music in Japan are popular and the soundtrack for Persona 4 was big enough to gets its own rhythm game spin-off, Dancing All Night. The music that currently defines the series is a huge part of its identity, and this unique approach to gaming soundtracks has been a breath of fresh air.

persona 4 reading twilightThe Freedom

The first few hours of Persona 3 and 4 are a bit maddening. But after the insanely long intros where you are shuffled from one scene to another with no control, the games open up a world of possibilites and a level of player freedom usually associated with open-world games, but without all the wandering and generic questing. Where most RPG’s have you walking around massive open areas and towns searching for loot or being constantly harried by random strangers demanding you go there and kill that, walk them here, bring this there, or bring that here, Persona seldom bothers you with this crap. These games are about what YOU, the player, wants to do.

And boy, is there a lot to do. Once the options open up, it can be overwhelming. On one hand, you have work to do and you need to go grind in the dungeons and accomplish your current story objectives. The game will not hold your hand on this, but at the same time part of maximizing your character’s potential is in extracurricular activities. More on these points later.

You can spend time with friends, make new ones, go fishing, cook food for yourself, work any number of jobs, join school clubs, go to the movies, study, read, surf the internet, play games, shop, or grind levels to your heart’s content, all of which will reward you in some way. There’s really no wrong way to spend your time, but that time is limited so a huge part of the fun is in balancing your story duties with character building and managing your social life. No other franchise that I’m aware of does it this way.

The Challengepersona 3 game over death

Like I said before, these games do not hold your hand. They tell you what needs to be done and even offer some reminders, but if you should fail, it’s game over, man. Literally. The enemies are equipped to take you down before you even know what happened, there are few to no save points in the dungeons, and if you die, it’s back to the title screen. This will happen because the enemies don’t always fight fair and you’re often one random slip-up away from wiping. All they need to do is take out your main character, and this is pretty easily done. Sorry about you losing your last couple hours of progress, experience, and random loot drops. See you soon. Buh-bye.

A lot of modern RPG’s heal your party automaticallly after each battle. But this series embraces the grueling attrition of dungeon crawling like no other. Each dive becomes a gamble where you have to gauge how far in you want to go and when you want to go back. Your Spirit Points are your lifeline to keep you healed, so when you begin running out of them, it’s time to look for a way out. Persona 3‘s procedurally-generated grind tower, Tartarus, had exits that would appear randomly. If you passed one by you never knew when you’d get another and you couldn’t go back down once you ascended a floor, leading to some serious tension between maximizing your dungeon dive to get the most out of your night and risking dying and losing progress. Persona 4 relented on this point a bit by allowing you to buy items to teleport you out or backtrack like a wuss in lieu of randomized exits, but the tension is still there as some enemies are quite powerful and capable of sending you back to the main menu at any time.

Storywise, you have a window to get to where you need to be to beat the boss at the end of each chapter. If you’d rather procrastinate and chase girls or focus on schoolwork and try to make up for lost time at the end rather than grind in the dungeon, it’s on you. But if you find yourself unable to get it done when the clock runs out and the big day comes, you’d better hope you’ve got some saves far enough back to load and make better choices next time because the game won’t take it easy on you. This challenge ties into the freedom.

persona 3 combat gameplayThe Combat

Persona‘s current combat system also has a very different feel from its traditional JRPG brethren. Even the layout is different. Rather than lining up you characters on one side and the baddies on the other, your team surrounds the enemy, making it look more natural as a combat situation. In addition to traditional weapons, your characters fight using incarnated aspects of their personalities (the titular Personas). Your main character can obtain, use, and create a variety of them but the rest of the cast has one apiece. Each Persona has a set of skills and attributes as well as abilities that either drain your SP or HP, so they need to be used judiciously.

In order to survive, you need to find each enemy’s weakness. Failing to do this, you’re going to have a bad time. If you hit an enemy with the right attack or manage a critical hit, it knocks them on their ass and you get another turn. If you can get them all down at once, your entire party can jump in for a devastating melee and likely end the fight. This should always be your goal because anything else is going to eat up more precious resources. Also, if you don’t find their weakness and end them, they won’t hesitate to find yours and end you. Sometimes, it’s like walking a tightrope and one missed spell could mean the difference between victory and the dreaded game over poem.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Persona 3 was that your allies acted of their own accord. Normally in JRPGs you have to micromanage every action in battle, but this way you really felt like part of a team. And the AI would make the right call more often than not since they take note of enemy vulnerabilities and heal whenever necessary, which was pretty impressive. But not everyone was a fan so Persona 4 mainstreamed a bit and gave players the option for direct control over teammates. I’ll admit in some tough boss fights I’ll get all control freaky, but overall I really like the AI approach. It makes your characters seem more independent, which brings us to my final point:

The Characterspersona 3 4 cast

Any good story-based game lives and dies on the strength of its cast. This is naturally one more area where Persona shines. The mythologies and themes of each game in the Megami Tensei series are a wonder in and of themselves, filled with inscrutable weirdness, classic anime stylishness, dense metaphorical allegory, and provocative symbolic imagery (teenagers shooting themselves in the head to unleash their Personas in Persona 3, for instance). But what good is any of that if you don’t care about the cast?

Your lead is traditionally a silent blank slate with different dialogue choices for the player, but the rest of the cast is expansive, diverse, and extremely well-developed. Not only that, but the development of their backstories is often intrinsic to your own character’s progression, as getting to know each character allows you to create more powerful Personas associated with their affinity. There’s brotherhood and romance and comradery as well as tragedy and strife to be found depending on any given character’s arc. If you choose the wrong reaction to a given situation, you could face losing a friendship.

While BioWare games obviously do a pretty great job of fleshing out their cast, Persona avoids some of the pitfalls that make the interactions feel unnatural like checking on characters all the time to see if they have new dialogue and having the same conversation over and over again as a result. When a character is ready to talk to you, they let you know, and you can pretty much choose the pace your relationship grows at without much waiting. In fact, the game keeps you so busy it can be hard to find the time at all.

The strength of the characters is largely what’s led the last two Persona games to branch out into other genres and media. Persona 4 has been made into an anime series while the story of Persona 3 is being recounted as a series of films and the casts intermingle in the fighting game Persona 4 Arena, a dream collaberation with Blazblue creators Arc System Works.

Final Fantasy has lost its touch with creating fresh memorable casts in recent years with a lot of one-note characters straight out of bland shonen anime, so it’s really nice to have another go-to series that combines the best aspects of classic turn-based role-playing with a fresh modern approach that embraces both the fantastic and mundane joys of gaming and life. That is to say that Persona 5‘s delay may be a blessing in disguise that will give some Western gamers who haven’t yet experienced this series a chance to go drop a few bucks on PSN and see what all the fuss and anticipation is about. If you’ve ever loved a classic JRPG, it’ll possibly be the best money you’ve ever spent.