Persona 4: Golden (Atlus, 2012)

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persona 4 the golden

Persona 4: Golden. I finished this game in mid-May, so this may be one of my most delayed reviews ever, but it’s because I really wanted to reflect on this game and see if it is still as amazing in my mind as it was when I was playing it. (And totally not because I am lazy and get distracted easily). Well, 6 months later I am happy to say that this is still the best game that I have played all year, perhaps even all time! Persona 4 is a beautiful game that addresses the pains of growing up, the repressed thoughts we all carry, and it packages it all up in a half-dating-sim half-JRPG format that is addictive and moving.

Persona 4 is the 4th entry in the popular Persona series, but no knowledge of previous games is required to play it. Persona itself is a spin-off of the much larger Shin Megami Tensei series (which are also great games, currently playing #4!) which mainly focus on demons in the real world. Persona takes those demons and makes them the tools of high school students; in Persona these demons represent their inner feelings, or “persona”, hence the title. The game begins with you, the protagonist moving into the village of Inaba as a transfer student from the big city. Inaba is a small town with not much going on, however, shortly after you move in mysterious deaths begin to occur in the quaint suburb . At the same time, rumors of a television channel that only broadcasts at midnight begin to circulate around your school. It is up to you and your group of friends to investigate whether these two things are related and, if so, how.

Persona 4 Characters

A shot of the main cast. Clockwise from left: Yusuke, Naoto, Kenji, Teddie, Rie, Yukiko, Protaganist, Chie

This game really took me for a loop in many regards, but one of the most surprising things about this game are the characters and how adventurous Atlus is in their personalities. There’s a girl who’d rather be a man, a high school teenager who is unsure about his sexuality, an idol who has lost her sense of identity due to fame, and so much more. Each character you associate with has such depth to them that it’s a shame it’s almost impossible to explore every character to their core in one playthrough. The game seems to explore every modern issue that teenagers face these days, and it does so in a mature way. No character is marginalized or made fun of due to issues they face, instead they are met with support from their friends. It amazes me how ambitious Atlus was in their writing, especially since this is coming from a Japanese company, seeing as Japanese society is usually not seen to be as progressive compared to European countries. Persona 4 is a great social commentary on the identity problems young adults face in today’s world and really helps the player begin to see these issues in everyday (virtual) life.

The story of Persona is also interesting, because it doesn’t start off as a typical “save the world” JRPG, although you do eventually get there. The focus of the game is merely to save those who have been put into the Midnight Channel and to solve the mystery as to whom is the kidnapper attempting to murder these innocent people. The mystery is the real draw here, as there are very subtle hints as to who the real killer is that are very hard to catch. Personally I had no idea who it was until the game explained everything. The game does a great job at pacing the plot so it feels like you’re always getting closer and closer to finding the real killer while at the same time enjoying your high school life. About 2/3rds through the game you have to choose who the killer is; if you conclude incorrectly the game ends with a “false” ending and you feel a little cheated, so make sure to save beforehand to ensure you get the “true” or canon ending! I don’t want to give too much away as I feel this is truly a game that deserves to be played with no spoilers.

chie social link

Leveling up a social rank by hanging out at the river.

Another important aspect of Persona are the social links. Social links are essentially progress bars that show how close you are to characters in the story, and as you increase social links with someone they open up to you more and more and grant bonuses in combat. Social links therefore have the bonus of allowing you to learn more about characters and connect with them while at the same time powering up your battle abilities and allowing you to create new personas. It’s extremely difficult to max out every social link in one playthrough, but it feels so rewarding to max out even just one. Especially the female ones, which essentially amount to dating sims, which I admittedly love. Still, even if you don’t like dating sims social links provide a great insight into each character, and you may even be surprised by what real life problems these digital people are carrying inside them. I really got attached to my “friends” through my 90 hours of playtime and I was really sad to say goodbye to them at the game. Maybe I just get attached too easily, but this game’s writing is absolutely fantastic at evoking the right emotions at the right time.

Persona 4 combat.

Combat interface. You can unlock fun costumes to wear for dungeons.

Unfortunately, and ironically as a game, Persona’s 4 weakest point is its combat gameplay. It’s your typical RPG combat, which, don’t get me wrong, is fun, but it gets repetitive like most JRPGs. Once you figure out an opponent’s weak point combat becomes pretty simple and doesn’t really pose a challenge, and boss fights felt more like a really long, simple fight instead of a challenging, engaging battle. The enemies do scale up in difficulty and become somewhat tough to battle, but at a point I just found myself steamrolling through everything. Although this may be more my fault as I have a bad habit of grinding a lot in any RPG that I play. The different elements (wind, fire, ice, thunder, light, dark) provide fun combat strategies in the beginning but by the end game just light and dark are really necessary as they insta-kill most enemies you’ll encounter except bosses. Even though the combat is repetitive, I still managed to find it fun in the end game as the “all out attack” when you hit every enemy’s weakness is a nice to watch (especially the “special” ones) and the bonuses you get at the end of each battle in the form of a card-picking mini game are kind of addictive. Also it is extremely rewarding to keep fusing and creating more and more powerful Personas which are available to you through higher social links, so it’s got somewhat of a Pokemon aspect as well in the idea that you want to create every Persona possible.

Finally, I’d like to touch upon the amazing soundtrack that Shoji Meguro put together for this game. An blend of J-Pop, J-Rock, piano, and vital to the game’s experience. Persona 4 would not be Persona 4 without the addicting music. The opening song to the game, “Shadow World”, is a catchy way to start up every session of Persona 4 GOLDEN and the visuals match the music perfectly. When I hear this track I just want to start playing again. The tracks that accompany each dungeon perfectly embody the setting, standouts include “Heaven” (those soothing vocals while fighting shadows) and “Game” (perfectly captures what 80’s video game music would sound like if modernized). Outside of the dungeons, walking around town wouldn’t be the same without listening to “Heartbreak, Heartbreak” or “Your Affection”, both of which have the best misheard lyrics ever. I totally thought “Your Affection” was actually “Your Reflection” in the song. The battle tracks like “Reach Out to the Truth” are empowering, catchy, and have awesome guitar riffs that just want to make you grind all day so you can listen to the music. As Kotaku writer Kirk Hamilton put it, Persona 4’s music is essential to the game as it “fulfills important…’rhythmic functions'” and provides a “feeling of ritual.”

So, seriously, if you haven’t played this game yet and do so. Persona 4 is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It seamlessly combines JRPG combat with dating sim mechanics and current social issues to provide one of the deepest time-sinks I’ve ever come across. This game is smart, funny, sad, scary, and overall a masterpiece of the JRPG genre. This game solely makes the Vita worth owning. The characters, the music, the visuals, the combat, the story, every aspect of a game comes perfectly packaged together to provide a unique, unforgettable experience in one little blue cartridge. I wholly recommend this game to anyone who can get their hands on it, trust me, it’s worth your time. Now, I’m off to start another New Game+, so remember:

p4 junes

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (Xbox 360, PS3)

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So, disclaimer, I am a complete Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fan. I’ve seen the movie, own all the books, and am currently recollecting the books printed in color. And now I can add beating Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game to my Bryan Lee O’Malley fan status. The past week I sat down with a couple friends for a few nights and conquered all of Ramona’s evil ex’s.

If you’re not familiar with the story of Scott Pilgrim it goes like this: Scott Pilgrim is a 23 year old living in Toronto. He is unemployed and plays in a band called “Sex Bob-omb” with his friends Steven Stills and Kim Pine. Scott lives with a gay roommate, Wallace, and Scott is totally his bitch forever. One day Scott runs into this girl Ramona Flowers, they hit off, Scott has to defeat her seven evil ex’s if they are to date. Read the books or watch the movie, they’re both worth it.

Anyway, with that established, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is one of those classic beat-em-up fighters a la the Simpsons game or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game you used to find in arcades. You can choose to play as either Stephen, Kim, Scott, or Ramona in your fight against the evil ex’s and their underlings. There is a leveling system, so while at first you only start out with a punch and a kick, you quickly start obtain combos and cool tricks like eagle dives and throws. The gameplay is pretty smooth, a bunch of guys pop on your screen and you have to defeat them all to progress through the level; there are a myriad of different enemies so combat never really gets boring, nor does it get too easy, with the game consistently proving a challenge. (at least, for me. But I also found out that I kind of suck at beat-em-ups while playing this game…so take that as you will.)

The seven evil-ex's.

The seven evil-ex’s.

Seeing as this is a beat-em-up, there are of course boss fights. In this case the bosses are the seven evil ex’s. Each boss fight has it’s own charm or twist to it, such as Matthew Patel having aid from his hipster chicks or the Katayanagi twins giant robot. The boss fights can be pretty tough, some of them might require multiple attempts or grinding, because once you lose to the boss, you have to redo the entire level again! The tactics and strategies to face each boss are different, which helps keep things fresh, and the final boss is quite an arduous process, one that makes you feel like you really accomplished something after your beat him. As a bonus, after you beat Gideon, you get to experience a different ending depending on which character the first player is. This means there are four different endings to the game, and even more if you have the DLC!

There are a lot of references to the comic and older video games in the game, which only serves as more reasons to love this game. Throughout the levels you will run into Lisa, Wallace, Julie, Young Neil  and many others, which is a delight for those who are fans of the comics books. For video game fans, there are references to Mario, Sonic, Zelda, Kirby, Megaman, Street Fighter, and a plethora of other old school games that only serve to show how Scott Pilgrim is a love letter to the video games culture of old.

scott pilgrim multiplayer

The multiplayer aspect of the game is done very well, in fact I could not imagine playing this game by myself. Scott Pilgrim is a game created to be played with others, with four controllers, in front of one TV screen. I constantly found myself thanking friends for reviving me or  tormenting them by throwing them around as a weapon. That’s right, you can throw your friends around and even pick them up to use to bash opponents, much to your friends’ ire. Playing Scott Pilgrim can be a test of friendship, and only the closest of friends will manage to play through the entire game without once getting mad at one another.

Music is also an important aspect of Scott Pilgrim, it being about a band and all, and the game does not fail to represent that aspect of the story. The music is done by Anamanaguchi, an 8-bit chiptune band who excels at what they do, seriously, check out their album called Dawn Metropolis. The music is high energy, the 8-bit music fits the 16-bit style of the game, and it makes the combat feel all the more epic and enthralling. This game would not be complete without its soundtrack, its an integral part of the Scott Pilgrim audience and I encourage you not to tune it out.

I can only find one real thing lacking about this game, and that is the level cap. The level cap for this game is pretty low, 16. At first I found it odd that there be a leveling system in a beat-em-up, but I guess it makes sense with the whole “retro” feel Scott Pilgrim is aiming for. However, once reaching the max level the game kind of loses its fun as enemies go down very easily and there seems to be no real challenge left in the game. If the enemies leveled up dynamically alongside you I feel like it would have added some replayability aspect to it, but as it stands, once you experience all the endings, which I imagine only hardcore fans will do, you won’t really find yourself coming back to this game.

Overall, Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The Game is a pretty great beat-em-up and probably one of the best available on Xbox 360 and PS3. It is great for a pick-up and play game, it has local multiplayer support which makes it great to play at parties or just during an afternoon with some friends, and it is filled to the brim with references both to and outside the Scott Pilgrim universe. And Scott Pilgrim fan will love this game, and even if you’re not one, you might as well give it a playthrough as the game accurately conveys the comic books’ charm and quirkiness. For an arcade game, this is a worthy purchase, and certainly worth your 10 dollars or 1600 Microsoft points.

Note: This game was reviewed without the Knives Chau DLC or the Wallace Wells DLC (which includes online multiplayer)

KATAWA SHOUJO (PC)

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Rarely do I ever come across a game where I actually feel emotionally shaken after finishing it. Games like Bioshock and Pokemon made me feel…different after completing them. I can now add Katawa Shoujo to this list of games. Despite being a 2D visual novel, the characters found within Katawa Shoujo are more three-dimensional than the characters I’ve come across in first-person shooters and action-adventure games.

The origin of Katawa Shoujo is a very interesting one deserving of its own article. The idea for the game originated on the /a/ (anime) board on 4chan, a user named RAITA posted some of his drawings which included sketches and ideas for a visual novel set in a disabled school. Interest grew among the 4chan community and eventually several developers around the globe agreed to create the game under the moniker 4 Leaf Studios. Development began in 2007 and the game was released on January 4th, 2012. Katawa Shoujo literally translates to “Crippled girls”, and that is what the game is about. The main character, Hisao Nakai, suffers from a heart attack and discovers he has an arrhythmic heart. This forces him to move from his current normal public school to Yamaku High School, a school exclusively for students with physical disabilities. It is here where Hisao learns to cope with his disability, meet others who have their own impairments, and perhaps find love.

From left to right: Emi, Rin, Lilly, Hanako, Misha, Shizune

From left to right: Emi, Rin, Lilly, Hanako, Misha, Shizune

In Katawa Shoujo, there are five girls that Hisao is able to have a relationship with: Emi (whose legs were amputated), Rin (who lost her arms to a birth defect), Lilly (who is blind), Hanako (who was severely burned as a child), and Shizune (who is deaf). Each has their own personality and is much more than their “disability”. Each love interest has her morals, dreams, and likes and dislikes. Each playthrough allows you to see this for yourself, and I actually felt a special bond with every girl after I finished their story. The writing throughout the game is very sincere and heartfelt, with each path having its share of happiness and heartache.

In my first playthrough I ended up with Hanako, who is a shy, quiet girl who suffers from severe burns on half of her body. She was often found reading in the library, inside the safe world of her books instead of the social anxieties the outside world placed on her. However, as I got closer and closer to Hanako, she revealed more about herself and I found that she was not as fragile as she appeared and I was reminded that people do not want to be treated like an expensive vase or brittle piece of glass, but rather as an actual person with their own strengths and deserving of respect. In this playthrough I actually ended up with the “bad” ending: where the girl breaks up with Hisao. I was heartbroken but it also helped me to understand that point. When I went back to get the “good” ending, I found myself learning how people want to have their own sense of independence and do not want to make others worry or become obsessed with their care. And this is perhaps the most endearing and important part about Katawa Shoujo; it teaches you how people actually want to be treated in the real world and the lessons from this game are not only applicable to the girl you are romancing, but are rather relevant to interacting with the world as a whole. I can think of several “Hanako”‘s whom I’ve met within my life who I treated as very delicate and emotionally sensitive, when perhaps I was not giving their individuality and strength enough credit.

My last playthrough also made me think a lot about myself and my own past. The girl I saved for last was Rin, who is an armless girl who is obsessed with painting. However, she is also a bit “out there”, with no one being able to truly understand her. Even Emi, her closest friend, admits that she cannot understand half the things Rin says. And as I continued along Rin’s path, I often found myself frustrated with how Rin seemed impossible to connect with, she seemed to have a disconnected view of the world, with her own thoughts being unintelligible to how most people think. However, occasionally Hisao and Rin do link on one point and another, and in that instant they are able to truly understand each other. Throughout this playthrough I often found myself asking the same questions Hisao asked himself as he was trying to decipher the puzzle that is Rin. She lives on another “wavelength” than other people that makes her truly difficult to understand, and I found myself relating to how people are unable to fully understand one another because of their thought processes and upbringing. Navigating  Rin’s route is much like trying to figure out a complicated and intricate maze, every turn seems to only confuse more and more. However, when you get to the end you feel like you truly accomplished a great ordeal and you come out a smarter person. Rin’s path is where the writing of Katawa Shoujo truly shines as it effortlessly conveys complex ideas and makes you realize something about yourself along the way.

I won’t go into details of the others paths in order not to spoil the entire game, however I will mention that every path is worth playing and has something to important to take away from it.

Being a visual novel, I also feel like it is important to address the art contained in the game. All of the girls are drawn beautifully with each of them having their specific quirks and personalities visible in their faces and animations. The background art is also magnificent, it seems to have an almost dream-like quality where a lot of the colors and shades blend into one another while still portraying a full landscape. Each girl also has a special movie played after the first chapter which showcases Hisao’s relationship with them, and while these are not the most professional works of animation I have seen, they are still better than one would expect from an indie game. Being a mature game, there also sex scenes present, however they are presented in a tasteful manner and feel much less like fetish porn but rather feel like an intimate bond between Hisao and his love interest. There are many pieces of artwork  for each girl and despite being 90% complete with the game, I still have 10+ items not unlocked in the gallery.

Another spectacular but oft-overlooked aspect of this game is the music. The music was composed by NicolArmafi and Blue123, and it is absolutely beautiful. Each piece conveys the exact emotion of the scene through sound and affected how I experienced each chapter of the novel. Even now as I listen to it I can recall an exact scene which incorporated this song, how I felt that the moment and the choices I or Hisao made, and how it affected Emi or Shizune, or any of the other girls. The soundtrack draws you in makes you experience the game as if you were actually there. This is not a game that can be fully enjoyed without the sound turned on.

Overall, Katawa Shoujo is definitely one of the best games to come out of 2012, personally going into my top 5 games released this year and likely into my top 10 of all time. The emotions and thoughts that I experienced throughout this game were like no other and I certainly look forward to a new playthrough of Katawa Shoujo, and hopefully, a new game from 4 Leaf Studios in the future.

 

Download link for Katawa Shoujo

DISHONORED (Xbox 360, PC, PS3)

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So just yesterday I beat Dishonored, one of the best new IPs to come out of 2012 and a game very similar to Thief and other stealth-assassination games. Backstory: You are Corvo, the bodyguard to the Empress who was sent on a mission to find a cure for the plague that terrorizes your home city of Dunwall. You return empty handed, and as you are discussing your results with the Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, she is assassinated and you take the blame. It is up to you to get revenge upon the men who framed you and to put Emily, the rightful heir, on the throne.

When I first fired up the game, I instantly felt myself drawn into the world of Dunwall and felt the plight of citizens facing the plague. The very first optional mission presented to the player in the game is to play hide-and-seek with Emily, the Empress’s daughter. This is a great minigame as it teaches the player to value stealth as a key tactic in the game and allows you to connect with an important character in the story. I instantly fell for Emily as a daughter/child figure and felt for this poor girl who lost her mother.

Dishonored does a great job of pacing throughout the game, starting off with its tutorial mission that does not feel like a tutorial at all but rather a dashing escape from prison. At first I was a bit frustrated with the controls of the game as there was only one control option that mapped sprinting to a button rather than pushing down an analogue stick, but I’ll chock that up to one of the pains of console gaming. The missions are very thorough, each one providing a multitude of paths and methods to complete them and ultimately take care of our target. I could either take possession of a rat and slip through a small grate to get past the guards, or I could simply jump from rooftop to rooftop.

How can you not love that adorable face?

How can you not love that adorable face?

One memorable mission was “Lady Boyle’s Last Party”, in which Corvo has to assassinate Lady Boyle who is hosting a party. The issue is, there are three Lady Boyle’s and there are hosting a masquerade ball. Because Corvo always wears a mask you are able to enter easily enough, but finding the right Lady Boyle proves entertaining. In my playthrough I schmoozed with the elites at the party gaining information on which Lady Boyle was wearing what color and eventually found her. I offered to go “upstairs” with her and promptly choked her. (No, it wasn’t consensual) I then gave her to a nice gentleman on a boat who loved her and no blood would be shed.

The reason there exist so many tactics in Dishonored is due to the various abilities available to the player. In the game there exist six powers: Blink, Possession, Dark Vision, Devouring Swarm, Bend Time, and Wind Blast. Blink is essentially short teleportation, Possession allows you to control animal and, if powered up, people.  Dark Visions lets you see through walls and cones of vision. Devouring Rats summons a horde of rats to devour your enemies. Bend Time lets you slow down, and even stop, time, and Wind Blast is pretty self-explanatory. (shoot wind out of your hands)

Because I was attempting to take the “good” or non-lethal route, my playthrough mostly consisted of Blinking around, sneaking past guards using Dark Vision, and occasionally Possessing a rat to get into a hard to reach room. While Dishonored gives you many weapons such as a sword, crossbows, grenades, and mines, there were only two weapons available to my playthrough: sleep darts and chocking from behind. The worst part is, you can upgrade the amount of darts your crossbow can hold but it doesn’t increase the amount of sleep darts you can hold! I don’t know if that was a bug or a design decision  but it certainly makes the low chaos ending harder to achieve. However, that makes it all he more satisfying when you complete the game and I feel that having only those two options did not make the game that more difficult. (I was playing on Hard if you’re interested)

The game’s AI was pretty satisfying, with them appropriately responding to collapsed allies or noises. Dogs especially were annoying, as they were not worth using a sleep dart on but unfortunately you can’t choke out a dog. (Massive oversight by the developers, I could totally choke out a dog.) All of the characters present int he game felt very human and were well written, I could see compassion, greed, nobility, and even a bit of perversion in the characters. *cough Piero cough* The game even introduces religion in the form of “The Outsider”, a supernatural being who can invade your dreams and grant superpowers to those he deems worthy. Books and pamphlets throughout the game also provide a rich canon with many ideas and options open for a sequel.

Overall, I was quite satisfied with Dishonored. The gameplay and missions were all well done and thoughout, the story is engrossing and involved, and the characters are deep and relatable. MY only main gripe would be the disappointing ending, which was not disappointing because it was “bad” per say, merely that it was very abrupt and did not seem to meet the standards that had been placed on the story up to that point. However, I still look forward to another game set in the universe of Dunwall because games like Dishonored as hard to come-by these days. A truly great IP with unique gameplay that I hope to see more of in the future.

What is this blog all about?

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Hello and welcome to my blog!

First, let me tell you a bit about myself. I’m Philippe Kimura-Thollander, half-Swede half-Japanese, been living in America for a majority of my life. Now, like most children who grew up in the late 90’s and early 00’s, I grew up playing Pokemon and Smash Bros. The world of video games has entranced me ever since the age of 4, and my dream has always been to design and create video games. I am currently in college studying computer science in order to achieve my dreams of becoming a video game developer. That being said, I feel that the best way to learn how to create games is to review other ones and examine what makes them great and what makes them…not so great. So yes, This is another video game blog on the internet. But I promise to try and be enticing! And interesting! Most of all fun!

Hope you enjoy reading my reviews as much as I will writing them,

Philippe Kimura-Thollander