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May: You’ve Been Cheated [Fukubukuro 2010]
Jan 6th, 2011 by Dan

In their last show as a band, the Sex Pistols played one song and left the stage. Before leaving the stage, Johnny Rotten quipped, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

The thing is, I don’t feel this way for the reasons everyone else might think I might. I suppose we’ll go after the biggest point of contention first.

Linearity

“Final Fantasy XIII is The Worst Final Fantasy Ever (TM) because all the dungeons are straight lines and there are no towns.” Guess what. The non-linearity of those Final Fantasy games you all hold so dear is an illusion. Final Fantasy XIII draws so much ire because it has the gall to tell you what you already know.

I mean, really, you might be able to wander around the world man, but that doesn’t mean you get to pick what you do. The plot only advances when you go to specific places in a particular sequence (also known as a linear progression) and locations on the map are artificially locked from transit by story gates.

In fact, non-linearity is a joke across almost every video game. The main fun of any GTA game may not stem from following the story, but when you do decide to start on it, you will never be able to sequence break or do anything but follow it linearly to its conclusion. You might be able to pick which order you complete mission paths, but, with the exception of GTA IV, every event has a pre-determined outcome. If that’s not linearity, I don’t know what is.

I applaud a game that doesn’t try to conceal its story behind a veneer of faux choice. Final Fantasy games have only ever allowed choices once: The World of Ruin in FF VI. There are countless story details and sidequests to experience, but once you get Setzer, Edgar, and Sabin, you don’t have to see any of them. You’re free to grind and face Kefka at any point.

Bonus points really should be awarded to FF XIII for having the guts to let its story carry the momentum, but they are immediately lost on their failed attempt to make anything remotely interesting happen.

Foremost in my annoyance with the game is Hope’s subplot. In the first hour or so of gameplay, Snow, a big, earnest, stupid guy in the tradition of anime big, earnest, stupid guys, manages to get most of his ragtag squad killed, including Hope’s mother, standing up against the world’s government. Naturally, this infuriates Hope, who now desires revenge.

Hypothetical: A man seems directly responsible for the death of your mother. Do you:

1. Stutter and stammer every time you see him
2. Stew silently while enjoying revenge fantasies every time you see him
3. Figure out some way to confront him (in rage or otherwise) the first chance you get.

Maybe I’m being presumptuous here, but unless you’ve got some sort of emotional disorder, option three seems like the healthiest and most logical choice. Hope is all about the first two options because he is a gigantic pain in the ass.

I don’t think this is the result of some kind of cultural difference. I mean, hey, I’m not the most emotionally open person. I don’t really go around sharing my feelings with everyone I know, but I’m pretty sure that if a man were responsible for killing my mom, he’d know about it ASAP. It’s got to be a contrivance (and an annoying one). Why are characters in media so unable to just open their mouths and talk? If writers think this is an effective way to build narrative tension, then I’ve got news for them. As a rule, if your characters are forced to behave like they’ve never interacted with another human being for your plot devices to work, said devices are cripplingly contrived.

Honestly, it’s just lazy writing and it removes me from the narrative. Maybe Hope has a Deep Dark Secret that makes him act so stupidly, but we never learn about it. The game goes out of its way to say that Hope has father issues to hand-wave away his social idiocy, but when we meet Papa Hope, we’re confronted with a loving father who seems to care very deeply about his son. Did I miss something somewhere? Someone seems to have dropped the ball.

You know what, I think I know why this happened. Somewhere along the way the story gurus at Square Enix decided that many young men, their prime and target demographic, seem to have issues with their domineering fathers. Some of them wrote this detail on his character sheet. Somewhere else the scenario writers were coming up with how half of the player characters would unite and escape. They decided they’d meet at Hope’s mansion and Hope’s awesome dad would help them out. When you’ve got a game this massive and important, you’d think that these two teams would discuss these idiosyncrasies, right? How does such a glaring contradiction make it into the final build?

One of my other big “WTF?” moments comes at the end of a sequence at an amusement park. Sazh struggles with whether or not to kill the traveling companion who has betrayed him. Pretty soon after that starts, the physical manifestation of his emotional conflict attacks him. For most characters, fighting their eidolons, as they are called, brings them emotional peace allowing them to understand their path. In this case in results in Sazh deciding to commit suicide. What. The. Fuck.

Repeating this same emotional pattern six times (one for each main character!) seems like it would get old fast. It does. Suicide does not freshen the experience. It makes no sense. We all know he’s not really dead because we just unlocked his summon!

It’s a shame to see so many missteps in such a promising premise. Roll with me here. In the world of FF XIII there are two primary sentient beings: Humans and Fal’Cie (ignore the stupid name of the second species (typical Squeenix pretentious nonsense)). The FC, as I will now call them, are magical creatures specializing in producing food, power, or other more advanced functions. Unfortunately, the FC are split into two warring factions, Cocoon and Pulse. FC also have the terrifying ability to brand humans, saddling them with cryptic quests. Failing to complete these quests turns the human into a mindless monster cursed to wander the earth slowly solidifying until he finally petrifies and can no longer move. If they magage to succeed in their quest, they are transformed into crystals for eternity. Those in “crystal sleep” are not dead, but they are also not alive.

It’s the perfect deconstruction of video game protagonists. Each character has a singular purpose. Failing will result in a fate worse than death and succeeding will result in the end of the narrative, dooming the characters to non-existence. The much maligned linear nature of the game represents their inability to turn away, especially when you learn that the antagonists have been helping you the whole time. The big bad wants the characters to kill him. For once the game realizes that its point is to be defeated by the player.

If Squeenix hadn’t gone and relied on a deus ex machina ending like they had, the world would have ended with mankind and the FC extinct. It would have been brilliant.

Here’s another idea for the writers out there. If we have no idea (and no hint) a character can do something until you dramatically reveal it in the penultimate cutscene, it will feel cheap when you make the ending rely on that skill. Not to mention, of course, that the physics of arresting the momentum of a giant biome falling thousands of feet through the atmosphere would probably result in the deaths of nearly every inhabitant.

This is all stacked upon the naive and bullheaded solution that our heroes come up with to counter the manipulative FC. Get this, their plan is to just keep going along the path hoping that something will save them from dooming themselves (ok, so it does, but that’s because of narrative bullshit). It makes my brain hurt in ways I cannot fathom. It’s idiotic.

Now we’re going to take a moment for a quick aside into my personal life that will invariably lead back into the game.

I don’t know what university was like for non-math-type majors, but for my ECE degree I was forced to read and watch tons of mathematical proofs. Invariably (math pun! (so lonely)) we’d reach a point where the professor would skip to the end of the proof and tell us students “I’ll leave the rest of this proof as an academic exercise for you students”. When you’re the professor, you don’t have to waste your time doing the grunt work.

That was quick, back to the game:

Why are we forced to load the battle engine against enemies who are drastically weaker than the player’s party? What’s the point of that? The only time I’ve ever seen this problem intelligently avoided was when I played Earthbound. Once Ness is sufficiently more powerful than a given enemy, enemy encounters result in an instant KO. The battle engine isn’t loaded and XP and items are awarded as appropriate. The game surrenders a battle whose result is a foregone conclusion, saving you from wasting unnecessary time.

Shouldn’t more games do this? Why do I have to load up the battle engine to complete a fight that lasts five to ten seconds? What does the game gain by forcing me to sit through this? It’s not like we’re strategically managing resources in this game (unlike, say, a Persona or Shin Megami Tensei game); the entire party is fully healed after every battle. So why not? Does Squeenix think that if we don’t sit through a five second battle while pushing ‘X’ once we will be livid that the game is playing itself?

Of course, this makes even less sense when you think about the way the battle system works in FF XIII. There are two ways that you can fight: Auto-Attack and Abilities. If you select Auto, the AI will select a series of commands faster than you could based on the knowledge it has about the enemy you are facing. All you have to do is set the roles (Tank, DPS, Healer, Buffer/Debuffer) and the game will pick the most prudent course of action. It’s also streamlined to such a degree that if you die, all you’ve got to do is pick retry and you are respawned just outside the battle you just lost. It’s that easy.

Final Fantasy XIII wants so badly to be a well-oiled machine, like a Disney ride pushing you toward the goal, that these time sinks become way more pronounced. Fighting with auto, like almost every player does, with your only responsibility being character roles can still be strategic and fun, but at a certain point I start to think, “Why do I have to select auto every single round? Why can’t I just toggle it off when I need to change my tactics?” It’s like the game asks me every turn if I still want it to play the game for me.

Don’t get me wrong here, XIII is not a bad game…or maybe it is. Perhaps FF XIII is a better experience than it is a game. You’ve got stunning cutscenes and top-notch voice acting combined with a game that mostly plays itself along a straight line. Almost sounds like a movie to me.

Lightning cosplay at Otakon 2010

Persona 4 Review [Game Overview/Sony]
May 29th, 2009 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

When I was a kid I became saddled with the unfortunate notion that Japan did pretty much everything better than the United States. I don’t think I would have gone so far as to call myself a Japanophile, but it was definitely close. Their video games were all sweet (FF VI and Chrono Trigger!) and their cartoons sure beat the heck out of the asinine stuff I was sometimes watching on the Disney Afternoon. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was watching Bubblegum Crisis and Ranma at a time when the best cartoon I could watch was Timon and Pumbaa, but it would be foolish to think that the allure of the unknown didn’t factor into it too.

This persisted up until I got to high school and I realized, “Hey, I’m never gonna get laid if I keep this up…” Your mileage may vary with that statement, but at my school the anime crowd consisted of one fat lesbian and a bunch of greasy, socially maladjusted dudes. Clearly a situation not conducive to meeting the ladies. So what did I do? Push a lot of it to the hidden background and pretend like I played video games and watched anime a lot less than I did.

Here I digress for a few moments about the absurdity of anime culture in the states compared to Japan. We grow up rationalizing that the obsessive, smelly, cosplaying kids we see on this side of the the Pacific would fit right in the Land of the Rising Sun, but the truth is otaku is almost a dirty word in Nippon. The most hardcore devolve into hikikomori and become paralyzed with social anxieties preventing them from even leaving the apartment. Yes, I know it’s naïve to associate the hikikomori exclusively with anime, but it’s also totally fair to say that a good degree of them do obsessively collect or exhibit some sort of obsessive otaku behaviors. Meanwhile, the term is romanticized in the West as a badge of pride. My brother uses DJOtaku as a handle online and even to actually DJ. It’s bizarre in the way that the Japanese attach firmly Western ideas like Christianity or Western names to their anime characters. It kind of fits, but then you realize that this nun-training school is part of a hentai dating sim and it leaves you scratching your head.

And so my love-affair with Japanese media remains mostly a secret, but even I have become disillusioned with it. The over-reliance on moe, the bizarre obsession with girls who look like they are eight (I realize this is part of moe, but this is creepy enough to warrant its own entry), same-y plots, and damn-near interchangeable characters make the whole thing feel kind of like a waste of time. Among all of this unoriginal crap that was flooding my brain, I managed to run into Azumanga Daioh. Guess what: this is the most realistic, if you can call slapstick realistic, seeming representation of Japanese high school life. It’s also entirely incomprehensible to anyone who just doesn’t get Japanese humor. Aside from all the insanity, what did I learn? Japanese high school sucks.

Let’s start right from the entrance requirements: Japanese high schools are not compulsory. Here in the States the local governments provide school for us knuckleheaded Americans to attend as required by law (unless we decide to stop going at age 16). The Japanese, on the other hand, have to test into their high schools, rather like some of us do for private schools. Then they suffer through three years of rote memorization all while stressing out over college entrance exams, attending school on SATURDAY(!), spending time obsessively devoted to their clubs, and, if they’re trying to get into a sweet university and they’re not brilliant, attending cram school to help study for those entrance exams. Meanwhile I coasted through public school, hit on girls as often as I could, and spent my afternoons swimming, hanging out with my friends, playing video games, and maybe doing some homework. One seems clearly better than the other, but then again, who am I to judge? Plenty of Americans probably can’t find Japan on the map much less remember the quadratic equation. I counter that we also don’t deny raping and pillaging China and Korea, so I’ll call us even for now.

So now you see that if you weren’t in a private boarding school with super-strict academics, your life was probably a lot easier-seeming than your counterparts out East. Enter the Persona series, which for the past two iterations has, yes, simmed having to attend JAPANESE high school. Persona 3 has you attending high school in an urban Tokyo-analog. Then you move onto Persona 4 which takes place in rural Japan where everyone is quick to tell the protagonist, heretofore referred to as Dan, since that’s what I named him, that “Boy is life gonna be boring now that you’re out here with us country bumpkins after living the high life in the city.”

I say all this to point out that Persona 4 comes at the non-Japanophile from an unexpected angle. It is an unapologetically Japanese 80+ hour RPG about going to school in the countryside. Yet, as I write this, I am listening to Vinny Caravella and Jeff Gerstmann comment on the game, MSTK 3000-style, in one of Giant Bomb‘s most successful video features, the Persona 4 Endurance Run. So not only did I play this game, I take about 20-60 minutes each day, on average, to listen to people play the same game I spent 80 hours on and crack jokes about it.

Persona 4 is good because it, rather like Azumanga Daioh, represents high school in rural Japan pretty darn well. I say this, of course, as a man who has never attended high school in rural Japan. In fact, my most legitimate experience with Japan comes from working in Okinawa, so take from that what you will. In my mind, it does a pretty good job, abstractions aside. As a student who also has to grapple with the forces of evil, Dan also must balance his social life, do his schoolwork, and work a part-time job, which mirrored my high school experience in America, minus the forces of evil. The plot boils down to this, Dan shows up in Inaba, Japan right before a series of bizarre murders begin to happen on a fairly regular basis. Dan, being the mostly conscientious type, doesn’t really jive with murders, so he and his buddies decide to bring the murderer to justice.

There is one thing I also don’t remember being a part of high school: I don’t remember my posse constantly reminding me of the exact same thing, over and over, using different wording. There’s a disturbing trend in modern games where the player is treated as something of an imbecile. I can’t say I mind the Zelda-esque bold letters to denote something important is being said, but could that possibly be because I find the rest of the dialogue so full of repeated nonsense that my brain starts to shut down from exposure to stupidity? At least I know when to pay attention, right? I would blame the localization staff, but I realize that all the redundancy is actually a problem with the way the game was originally made. They’re just aping all of that empty, redundant dialogue with their translation. It’s also not a case of “Japan thinks the West is stupid,” because this game was clearly meant for Japanese audiences. No, this is what modern game designers do. You can’t trust the player to read the manual any more, that I get. Besides, video games are a visual AND a kinetic medium, as I’m sure you’ve heard me say before (just like you’ve heard me say games are too easy), but it doesn’t mean that you have to talk down to us. The Persona games, 3 more than 4, are way hard when it comes to the battle mechanics, but the storylines and dialogue are at about middle school level.

Don’t even get me started on the dubbing work…I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, if you’re bringing a game over from Japan, leave the Japanese vocal track on there. I don’t care how much money you spent trying to localize and dub it, it just sounds bad. Japanese vocal actors, seiyū, are big business in Japan. Consequently, they’re way better at their jobs. Even if they’re not, I have no idea what poor Japanese acting sounds like, but I’m infinitely familiar with poor English acting (hint: I’ve got experience listening to every thing I’ve ever heard with English dubs). So here’s the pro-tip I’m sure they didn’t even ask for, don’t stick me with just a dub of your game. It makes me mute the volume when they speak. I know Atlus knows better too, because they do leave it on sometimes.

The folks at Atlus do respect gamers when it comes to their battle system. Persona 4 is joyously hard in an era where few games challenge me. I’m not a masochist, I just don’t want my game session to be so simple I can sleep through it. I get that Pokémon is a game for children, but why can I battle, listen to music, and play another video game entirely and NOT LOSE. There is a point, after you’ve finished the quest where Pokémon turns around, takes off its belt, and says “So you think your Pikachu is cute? You think that belief in the heart of your pokémon is going to tump my belief in cold, hard statistics?” and promptly starts beating down the weak, but this is after 60 hours of questing.

No, Persona paces itself brutally. You think you can get away with not having a social life? Your party will be weaker along with the Persona you summon. Think you can have a social life, but not worry about raising your personal statistics like courage, knowledge, or understanding? Guess what, you can’t raise your social links without certain statistical prerequisites met. This results in a game that forces you to do everything it asks of you and to do them at least kind of well, if you kind of want to survive. Grinding got you plenty far in Persona 3. You could buy SP (the MP-analog) recovery items at will. In Persona 4, SP is a commodity. There are three main ways to restore it: 1. Blind luck, 2. SP recovery items (now available through chests as a random drop or as a reward for helping people out), and 3. One of your social links. It seems like the third option would be beneficial, except that social link needs to be damn near maxed out for the cost of SP recovery to be manageable (oh yes, he’s your friend, but he don’t heal for free. Nope, daddy’s gotta eat too). So this SP system manages just how long you can survive in the dungeon because the monsters are pretty tough and won’t go down with physical damage alone, not without a strong fight. In fact, some are even immune to physical damage. You could try picking on weaker enemies in earlier dungeons, but their EXP yield eventually drops to drops in the ocean the further you get away from them in level.

I like Perona 4 because of its hard, no-nonsense battle systems. I like it because its story, embarrassing as it might be in front of girls you want to impress, because it deals with social anxiety, isolation, angst, and belonging, a little less than Persona 3, but you get what you can. I like it because it looks at Final Fantasy’s huge budget and beautiful CG graphics, flips it the bird, releases on PS2 when the PS3 has been out for two years, and uses a heavily stylized interface with anime style graphics and anime cutscenes. I also like it because I like being called Mesa-senpai and Mesa-kun. Not in real life, mind you, but it’s funny in-game.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go watch some Naruto while eating curry and Pocky and building my Ichigo Kurosaki costume for Otakon.

Game Overview: Shin Megami Tensei
Apr 15th, 2008 by Dan

The other day when I was talking about Persona 3, I got a comment about the SMT series being a Western-based RPG instead of a JRPG. To start off with, the original game for the Famicom was based on a Japanese book about using the digital world to summon demons. From this point forward, no matter how much the first-person dungeon crawling might be reminiscent of Ultima or other Western RPGs, we cannot call the game Western, but we can do better than just this.

Demons: Gotta catch ’em all!

From the start of the series on the Famicom, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, there was a focus on using digital methods to capture or recruit demons to fight on your team. A variety of demons should be collected so that the player will have access to multiple attacks to exploit the weaknesses of other demons and characters. So you can capture, coerce, or convince demons to join your party and fight alongside your team. They have specific characteristics and properties that they can exploit/be exploited. Does this sound like some other game that’s huge in Japan? That’s right, it’s like an early Pokemon, but much more violent and demonic. It’s rare to see a game of this type come out from the West, at least not before the Pokemon clones started to come out. Collecting monsters and elemental properties may not have been exclusively developed in Japan, but it was definitely refined in the East before the West even saw a prominent game of that type (please correct me if I’m wrong).

Tokyo Destroyed

If you’ve ever watched anime, no doubt you’ve seen at least one instance of a Neo Tokyo or New Tokyo or post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Fear of destruction through nuclear attack, earthquake, or military assualt is very deeply ingrained in the collective Japanese unconscious. Just consider the number of calamities the country has experienced: serious bombing in WWII, two nuclear assaults, also in WWII, and the earthquakes the island weathers. So when most of the SMT games feature the destruction of Tokyo through missile attack, both nuclear or non-nuclear, it becomes clear that this series is distinctly Japanese.

(Anti?) Western Religious Themes

It takes a non-Christian country to have the final boss of a game be YAHWEH. The Almighty God is indeed the final enemy of SMT2. Lucifer and other angels, like Michael all make appearances, along with gods and demons from other religions. Especially back in the SNES day, but even nowadays, there would almost never be a Western game that prominently featured a character called the Messiah (there are Messianic characters, but that’s way more general and not considered offensive in the West), an anti-Messiah, or any vilification of the Judeo-Christian religion.

All of these small things combine to give what I feel to be a very distinct Japanese feeling, even with the first person viewpoint used in the earlier games.

Game Overview: MLB Power Pros 2?, Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3: FES, Metal Gear Solid
Apr 11th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

About two weeks ago baseball season began and I dusted off my copy of MLB Power Pros to enjoy what was probably my favorite Nintendo release of last year. For those of you who don’t know, MLB Power Pros is the first US localization of the Japanese Jikkyō Powerful Pro Yakyū series that has been releasing since 1994 on the Super Famicom. Why hasn’t this game showed up stateside until September of last year? Take a look at this video:This super deformed style of person (called a Powapuro-kun in Japan) and the create-a-player mode (essentially a Japanese dating sim style game) combined to make this game “too Japanese,” even once the series began getting MLB licensing and stopped featuring only Nipponese Professional Baseball League players and teams.

So this game finally showed up on this side of the Pacific and it was amazing, but the fan-community, myself included, worried incessantly about whether or not the sales would be enough to carry the game to a sequel. Then a miracle happened. Amazon dropped the price by some indeterminate amount, baseball season started, MLB 2k8 for Wii and PS2 was mediocre, and MLB PP managed to land near the top of the sales charts at the end of March or early April. I decided to check out the official 2k Games forums and saw the usual “Will there be a sequel thread,” but this thread had an forum administrator telling us that more info would be forthcoming. Not too long ago, news on that thread hit that 2k Games was looking at a July release date. All I can say is: I can’t wait. They can count 100% on a purchase from me.

Unless you’re a hardcore Japanophile JRPG consumer, chances are you’ve never heard of the Shin Megami Tensei series. It’s no Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, but the game does have prominence in the Japanese market as a super complex and morally intense RPG series with incredibly deep storytelling.

One of the many spin-off series, Persona, has been appearing in America since its inception, but in heavily edited forms. Persona 1 had character ethnicities changed, stupid translation, etc. Persona 2 came out in two games, but only one made it stateside. Speculation as to why ranges from a homosexual character to the fact that one of the enemies is a resurrected Hitler with his unholy battalion.

Then Persona 3 hit Japan with the force of a bullet to the brain. No, seriously. The way to execute summons in this game, the source of the main characters powers, can only be achieved only by shooting yourself in the head with what appears to be a handgun (they’re called evokers). This comprises the dungeon crawling part of the game, but the rest is essentially a Japanese high school/dating sim (wow, two in one post!). Naturally, US Shin Megami Tensei fans were immediately skeptical about a US localization. Somehow, we did get a version in the states with decently high review scores, but the sales were low because a special edition came out in Japan and US buyers didn’t want to get nickeled and dimed buying the same game twice.

Meet Persona 3: FES. It’s the full special edition of Persona 3, complete with an extra 30 hour long epilogue (that’s almost a completely new game) for only $29.99 on the PS2. It’s got sweet anime cutscenes (see above), a quick, innovative, but hard battle system, and a killer story worth experiencing. I’m absolutely picking this up 22 April.

Last, and I know I’m way late to the game, but given the proximity of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and my buddy Lee’s recommendations, I picked up Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection. I’m still on the first game, Metal Gear Solid, and I have to say I’m really enjoying it. Hideo Kojima weaves a great tale complete with tons of great 4th wall breaking humor and a crass, smoking, womanizing protagonist who is just plain great to play as. This doesn’t even begin to account for the supporting characters, which consist of a Chinese woman who spouts proverbs, an otaku scientist, villains who do awesome things like read your memory card mid-battle to prove they’re psychic, and many more great characters. If you’ve lived under a rock as I have for all these years and you have either a backwards compatible PS3, PS2, or at least both a PS2 (non-backwards compatible) and PSX, go back and play this game. It’s way dated, but it’s awesome.

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