A Storm of Blood

Due to various circumstances I’ve been very remiss in doing much in the way of writing for the past month, and what little I’ve been doing has largely been things that aren’t ready for public eyes just yet. I did have a chance to review two games over on GameSkinny: Tokyo 42, an interesting but frustrating cyberpunk action game in the vein of Syndicate; and a visual novel about dating girls in North Korea that was bought for me as a dare to review. Never let it be said that I won’t take on such a challenge.

In addition to not writing too much, I’ve not actually had much opportunity to chip away at the backlog over the past month. Instead, I played Final Fantasy 14. A lot of Final Fantasy 14. Talking about my time with that will be the brunt of this article.

There have been a few other games that I’ll quickly go over to acknowledge my playtime. First, my go to aside from FF14 remains Heroes of the Storm, which I’ve still been plugging away at in short intervals and downtime with or without friends. I made it back to Diamond this season after an uncharacteristically good run of placement games (8-2), which was a pleasant return after floating around Platinum for the last couple of seasons. In addition, the upcoming Starcraft hero Stukov is both a huge favourite of mine and is also of my most frequented support role, so I’m looking forward to getting my hands on him.

Beyond those two games, I bought and completed Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia on 3DS. Well, rather, I completed Chapter 5 which is where the plot ends, but I didn’t dabble in any of the post-game stuff. It was a reasonably enjoyable game and I intend to make a post dedicated to it soon.

I also picked up Ever Oasis for 3DS on its release, mostly on a whim. It’s an interesting little game with a mix of Zelda-lite exploration and combat combined with a basic Harvest Moon system of town management. Sadly, while it started out interesting, there’s a few little issues that serve to bog the game down in terms of enjoyment, and it ended up feeling quite shallow and more like busywork rather than fun gameplay. Not sure I’ll get back to that, but again, planning to talk more on that.

Oh yeah, and E3 happened. Naturally I was in no position to attend, being on the wrong hemisphere, but I did pay some attention to it. I was mostly uninteresting by the vast majority of games on offer, but just about broke my chair in excitement when they announced Metroid Prime 4. I’ll most definitely be getting a Switch at some point now, that’s clear enough. Overall though, the presentation was largely meh and didn’t really have many highlights, so I won’t speak too much on this just yet. If anything interesting does come from it, well, odds are I’ll be able to write about those games when I play them.

So with that out of the way, let’s get into Final Fantasy 14 and its newest expansion then. Continue reading “A Storm of Blood”

The Persona Aftermath

It’s been almost two weeks after I finished Persona 5, settling down to do so a couple of days after the last post. There’s been a huge amount I wanted to say, and I was still fully intending on doing a proper review for it on GameSkinny or for here, but ultimately I just haven’t been up to writing much lately. I will hopefully have it written up in a couple of days, by which point the window will likely be closed for getting any real attention or readership for it, but no matter.

I really don’t know how to quantify how much I liked Persona 5 though. I feel like I could call it my favourite game ever, yet part of me suspects that isn’t the case and I could probably argue it with a few others. I feel like I could call it the perfect JRPG, but I know for a fact that there are flaws and issues with it, even if most don’t surface unless I really start nitpicking. I suppose I’d liken it as similar to Gigguk’s Perfect Anime, which is a thought provoking take on how we absorb entertainment as a whole. Persona 5 is my Perfect Game, just about, and I don’t expect another game to come along and topple it in my eyes anytime soon.

At least not until Trails of Cold Steel III, anyway. Fingers crossed on that one.

The other games that I’d call my favourite games are things like Baldur’s Gate 2, Morrowind, Chrono Trigger — games that I played more in my formative years that have stayed with me since, but it’s hard to know if I’d feel the same way if I was introduced to them today. At the same time, they have shaped my tastes in games so much that even if they may not “hold up” if first played today, they have been so influential that I would be loathe to call them not as good. Besides, they’re all games I can (and have) replayed even in more recent years and found plenty of enjoyment.

By contrast, the games of the recent couple of years that have truly stuck out for me are more like modern updates and advances in those earlier genres. The first two Trails of Cold Steel games, for example, gained similar responses from me as Persona 5 by basically being exactly what I wanted out of a JRPG in terms of gameplay systems and story.

Now Persona 5 has come along and set the bar higher, yet at the same time I don’t consider the overall feel of the characters and party members in P5 to reach the level that Cold Steel did. I liked most if not all of the Persona 5 characters both major and minor, protagonist and antagonist, but they weren’t written as cohesively and emotively (nor were they as numerous) as the overall cast of the Cold Steel games. Everything else is a step above in Persona’s favour, but if such an important aspect is lower, could the game be called perfect? These are the things I think about, even if that in itself is nitpicking.

That said, it’s been nearly two weeks and these thoughts have not ever left my mind for too long. Persona 5 may be over as an experience, but it has remained with me so profoundly ever since that it’s coloured my gaming habits and related moods. There’s a very real chance I’ll fight off my urge to pick up new games and work on completing them and instead go replay the game on a harder difficulty, not even a month after its release. That’s the kind of appeal the game has presented for me.

Since I haven’t done that, instead I went looking for gaming experiences like Persona 5’s. I thought I’d swear off JRPGs for a while because others can’t compete, but instead I picked up Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse once more, set on beating that after putting it down for P5. And beat it I did — that became my new obsession, forcing every other game out for a while as I struggled to fill the hole Persona left in my heart.

Thankfully there were quite a few key systems and narrative points in SMT4 that helped ease off the Persona come-down enough, and it itself was a very good game overall. Great themes, enjoyable story, likeable characters, solid battle system… and the worst final dungeon in a JRPG that I can think of. Seriously that last dungeon was atrociously badly designed in all ways and it was almost enough to kill off all my positive feelings of the game had it lasted even a few minutes longer (and it lasted HOURS). Thankfully, the final boss fights more than made up for that and left me with a satisfying conclusion. I’ll share more thoughts on that fully soon, with luck.

Nonetheless, ever since I finished with that game, I’ve been bouncing from title to title trying to find something to captivate me as it did, and nothing has succeeded. I’ve played a huge amount of Heroes of the Storm following that big update, I’ve rummaged through my 3DS collection for titles I never finished and flicked through about half a dozen of those, and I’ve started playing the Skyrim mod Enderal (which is quite good) among other games, and I’ve continued to drop some time into FF14. But nothing is quite having that same effect.

I suppose I should elaborate and say that it’s quite uncommon for me to stick to a game from start to finish in one go from the launch onwards. Normally I multitask profusely and put games aside for variety the moment I get bored or frustrated with them. It’s only more recently that I’ve found the patience and persistence to get through more titles from start to finish, and even that has started to vanish. Persona just did it better, and now other games aren’t captivating me enough, regardless of their genre.

It’s actually frustrating to feel this way, but there you have it I suppose. Persona 5 — so good that it’s ruined all other gaming enjoyment for me since. I did say that I realised halfway through that choosing not to judge it fully until I’d reached the end felt meaningless when I was growing despondent at the mere thought that it would eventually end, and I didn’t truly expect to seriously feel that once the credits had rolled. But I do.

All the way throughout, Persona 5 managed to keep my attention rapt. 98 hours total play time, and it only had the most minor of fumbles in terms of pacing and focus. It never wore out its welcome or felt like it dragged on. Some might say it’s a bit slow to start and I can see that, but I was quick to be pulled into its world and want to experience more. As the plot progressed and the dungeons continued, I always wanted to see and know more. I wanted answers for the questions the game was presenting to me, and I was rarely if ever left disappointed. If I did feel that way, it wasn’t because the game failed to deliver, but simply because I was hoping the game might push or explore a couple of concepts further yet chose not to do so. It’s not necessarily a defect or a flaw in the game; it’s merely how I wanted more narrative elements to chew and digest on.

By the time the credits had rolled, the story was told from start to finish in a completely satisfying manner. All the major plot points were resolved and all the characters had their moment to shine in some way. The narrative smarted small and ramped up constantly until it capped in a truly grandiose Shin Megami Tensei fashion. The final boss wasn’t particularly challenging for my setup, but it was epic enough to feel fitting. Start to finish, all of it a great game that I truly adored.

I’m happy to call Persona 5 the best Persona game. I’m even happy to call it the best game in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise as well as the best game of 2017 so far. But I’m even happier to go further than that: I’m happy to call Persona 5 my favourite JRPG ever. I firmly believe it sets the new benchmark to beat and will be talked about in the years to come in the same manner as games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 7, and yes, Persona 4 are now. As said above, I’d just about call it my Perfect Game. It’s hit me so hard that it is skewing how I play and enjoy games afterwards.

So that’s that. Now I need to find a way out of this funk and to keep moving forward with the games progression. Things I need to write soon: proper in-depth review for Persona 5’s game elements, more discussion about SMT4:A (especially compared to SMT4 and other SMT games), a discussion about character narratives using P5 and Trails of Cold Steel as comparisons, coverage of Enderal, and also chatting a little about my random dabblings in Elder Scrolls Online. And all while writing this, I need to find a new game that’ll keep my attention that can be chalked off the Backlog, because Heroes of the Storm cannot qualify for such a thing.

Look forward to all of that soon… hopefully.

Transistor, checking in

I’m typing this from a brand new PC that I only just properly got plugged in and running no more than half an hour ago, biding my time while the slew of standard programs is downloading and installing. Mostly just a small status update rather than any of my usual video game related ramblings.

First off: new PC. It’s been five years since I’ve had a fresh rig, though naturally the computer that I just stashed in the corner a few minutes ago has had numerous upgrades and replacements in those years. Still, the motherboard was effectively fried and I was getting constant black screens as the display drivers died on a regular basis, and multiple attempts to fix it or isolate other parts showed that it was unlikely to be anything else. I could probably have repaired or rebuilt it for cheaper than what I got this new machine for, but after dealing with this problem for literal months, I just wanted peace of mind and for this tech support nightmare to end.

So, the machine that I named Bastion is no more. Moment of silence.

Now, this isn’t an absolutely massive upgrade due to all my tweaks over the years, but this new machine should definitely keep me from having to push or upgrade in order to get newer games running comfortably. I’m probably going to shame the 60 FPS enforcing PC Master Race, but it should be pretty clear that I play games for gameplay and story more than graphics and can usually deal with a few hiccups. Regardless, the specs should get me decently far.

Naturally, I shall name this machine Transistor, since it’s the successor to Bastion even if the systems are slightly different. I’d consider calling it Pyre, but any name that’s fire related for a PC is just asking for trouble.

So with the PC back, I’ll be reinstalling FF14 and then picking and choosing my games as I go from there. Torment will be first up on the list since I didn’t get all that far in it and really need to put some more time and devotion into it. Cosmic Star Heroine just dropped a couple of days ago after a lengthy development cycle, and I’m quite keen to sink my teeth into that. However, I’m not about to start a new JRPG until the big one is finished: Persona 5, which has been both my obsession and my sanity-preserver during this time of technical troubles.

Everything I said about Persona 5 in the previous post still holds true, and I’m now 90 hours in and pushing the final stages of the game at long last. After such a long marathon journey over a comparatively short timeframe, I am now looking forward to the ending and seeing how it all wraps up nicely (if it does), but I will definitely be sad to see it gone. It’s without a doubt the best Persona game to date, and I still think we’ll be talking about in years from now in the same way we do some of the JRPG greats.

That’s assuming the ending doesn’t let me down horribly… but at present that doesn’t seem quite likely. Currently I’m intending to a full and formal review of the game (probably for GameSkinny), and then do a more in-depth analysis about a few points in the narrative. I also want to talk about the soundtrack and compare it with that of NieR: Automata, plus I want to do a big pros and cons comparison of P5 vs. the Trails of Cold Steel games, which are my other favourite and recent JRPG series. That last one in particular I could talk a great deal about, so please look forward to it I guess.

Time to set up a few downloads over night and crash.

We all wear a mask, metaphorically speaking

Persona 5 is well on track to being the greatest, most genre-defining JRPG ever made.

How’s that for a sensational opening? Still, subjective though it may be, it’s quite close to how I feel on the matter. In the four days I’ve had access to it, the first three of those saw me put in twelve hours of gameplay per day. I didn’t touch any other games during those initial three days save for forcing myself to play a few rounds of Heroes just for variety and to avoid burnout. The burnout wasn’t inflicted by anything about the game, however — I was literally getting physically uncomfortable from being in front of the PS4 for so long, no matter how I arranged myself.

Today, the fourth day, I didn’t play nearly as much of the game by design… instead, I wrote guides on it (and shall shamelessly plug them over on GameSkinny, be sure to check that for more of my work). I also dreamed about it, and woke up with the battle theme stuck in my head. During my other gameplay time, I was talking to people about the game and shooting messages back and forth helping friends who are behind me with it. Now that I’ve finished playing it for the night, I’m here writing about it. So yes, to say I’ve been enjoying it and that it has captivated me are gross understatements.

I went in to Persona 5 with a lot of very high expectations. I’ve liked the Shin Megami Tensei series for as long as I’ve known about it, always enjoying the more strategic and challenging battles on offer over other JRPG series. I loved that they were willing to go to more mature concepts and plots that dabbled in all sorts of mythologies beyond the usual Greek/Roman or Norse ones seen most video games. Persona 4 was one of my favourite games ever, and I’ve followed the series back through its shaky past and into the sea of spinoffs P4 generated.

I was hyped as hell about the announcement for 5 and watched the trailers continue to please me, though never let myself dive too deep into speculation or details because I wanted to experience it for myself. The game came out in Japanese six months ago, and my Japanese friends who played it spoke highly of it. I even had the chance to play the Japanese version for a time, and was absolutely blown away by the sheer stylish look and feel of the game. I waited patiently through delays and worries about translation issues, biding my time.

I don’t know if I’ve had such high expectations for a game before, but it has thoroughly destroyed them and gone beyond them.

At its core, this is still a modern post-P3 Persona game. It still starts you in April and progresses along a calendar system, juggling aspects of time management dating sims for social activities that improve your skills and relationships, then using those to strengthen your Personas for use in a number of otherworldly dungeons. The battle system is your standard turn-based JRPG with the elemental affinity system that the SMT series is known for, which rewards you for playing smartly and utilising even the buffs and status afflictions that many series keep only for tradition and filler. If you’ve played P3 and P4, you won’t find that much that’s brand new here.

What Persona 5 has, then, is polish. Absolutely every facet of this game has been polished until it gleams. Every feature and gameplay element is well thought out and handled well. The design of the locations is fantastically detailed. The soundtrack is phenomenal and diverse, with solid voice acting to back it up (despite some questionable pronunciation of Japanese names at times). More than anything is the constant and consistent visual style, which incorporates everything that the developers have learned from previous games — including Catherine, interestingly — and presents a world that is utterly gorgeous and completely unmistakable. The real world elements blend with the supernatural ones to create a visual spectacle that is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The most impressive thing for me is the narrative, though, as if often the case with my gaming experiences. Persona 5 is especially striking because everything and everyone involved in the game world is unified under a central theme: Rebellion. Now this isn’t new to the franchise, as P3 had Death and P4 had Truth as the central unifying theme, but neither of them took it to this level.

At the heart of P5’s narrative is this central motif that branches into literally everything around it. You are the Phantom Thieves, a group of outcasts and societal rejects (often for reasons that are either unfair or beyond your control) that have discovered the power of Personas and are now using it to rebel against a corrupt and broken system. The Thieves are the quintessential Robin Hoods, striving to bring justice to a system that has failed its people. They strike against the targets that are abusing their power and causing other people to suffer, whether it be due to abuse, manipulation, theft, and blackmail; even rape and suicide are themes brought into the game quite quickly, and Persona 5 has absolutely no qualms about confronting such mature themes with an equally mature outlook.

Literally every notable character in this game, whether part of the Thieves, supporting them, or opposing them ties into this central theme incredibly strongly. The Phantom Thieves are promoting their own sense of justice against modern society, and even while they target the worst, most vile and corrupt creatures, they also end up discussing (and serve as discussion points of) serious conversations about morality and society.

But there’s more. What really makes the Phantom Thieves relatable is, again, the fact that they are outcasts and rejects. Every member has a reason for not being liked or not fitting in with their surroundings, and it’s not just because they’re delinquents or criminals — some are foreign, some are introverted, some feel like they lack purpose within society’s structures, or some have an almost savant-like behaviour that makes it hard to fit in. Beyond that, the Phantom Thieves have Confidants which serve as the Social Links of previous Persona titles, but all of them tie back into this central theme as well. All of them are trying to do the right thing in a society that doesn’t value them, and even as they strive for social reform they find opposition from those who abuse the system for their own gain in twisted manners.

It’s a topic that can very quickly bleed into edgy teenage ideals of “fuck the system” for the sake of a perceived sense of anarchy, yet Persona 5 has thus far managed to steer away from this… which is in itself an incredible accomplishment, because the Thieves are teenagers. But they’re all believable, fully-fleshed out characters and their struggles and situations are fantastic and compelling to watch. And when you realise that it all just keeps threading back into that central theme, it really becomes clear how much of a masterfully written tapestry you’re witnessing.

There are so many ways this could fall into traps and tropes, but it somehow skirts them all. It presents questions about society and humanity, and then rather than bluntly answer them, it chooses to explore both sides and often sees characters on either side discussing them without a real “right” answer. It’s really fascinating to watch people clash with the Thieves, and not even bad guys — some are honestly good people both within and without society that nonetheless question the manner in which they work, discussing concepts such as law and justice and whether or not they should be observed.

But beyond all these grandiose themes and complicated webs… it’s a very human story. You really do end up feeling for the main cast, because they’re not bad people at all, they just for whatever reason don’t fit in. Anybody who has ever been bullied or feels like they’ve been ostracised or discriminated against will probably find something to relate to in the cast. But at its core, these people are just teenagers trying to make their way in a very strange, confusing, and difficult world. It touches on so many struggles we all face, especially in the arguably complicated and increasingly hard times we live in nowadays. And all throughout, it presents it in a very respectful and well thought out manner.

And if you don’t find all that as compelling as I do, well, there’s no questioning how well done all the game mechanics and gameplay systems are. I haven’t even spoken about how the previously pseudo-random dungeons of the Persona series are now replaced by massive and vivid set piece Palaces that the Thieves literally infiltrate and explore in the hopes of stealing the “treasure” within. I’ve even completely glossed over the motif of masks from this post title that the Personas have taken on that also serves as a consistent narrative device. That, I think, will have to wait for a proper write-up later.

To think that I’m still perhaps only halfway through this game… it’s utterly mind blowing. Perhaps now the sensational statement I opened with sounds far more reasonable. But all throughout, I’ve been quietly weighing the merits of Persona 5 against its predecessors, then more classic genre-defining JRPGs like Chrono Trigger or certain Final Fantasy titles, then against my personal favourite stand out JRPGs such as Trails of Cold Steel or Golden Sun. Yet even the most treasured of those that Persona 5 has lovingly built itself upon is struggling to compare.

I’ll close this by sharing a final epiphany I had yesterday. I don’t want to give true judgement on Persona 5 just yet because I keep telling myself “wait and see if it maintains this level of quality and narrative to the very end”. Amazing things and fantastic events occur in the game and I still keep thinking those same things. And then, when saying that same thing, I abruptly felt sad and depressed at the very consideration not that the ending might not live up to it… but that there must be an ending at all.

I don’t want Persona 5 to end. As much as I want to see closure and the resolution of the many plot threads I’m gradually following, I dread the feeling that this sublime experience will one day reach a conclusion. No matter how good or bad it might actually be, the fact that there will be an ending is honestly saddening.

If that’s how I feel about the game, well… seems safe to say that Persona 5 just might be the greatest, most genre-defining JRPG I’ve ever played then, huh?

I’ll leave you with a piece of the diverse soundtrack, which serves as a reminder of how much I treasure Shoji Meguro’s work as a composer.