Category: RPG

(Quick aside before real review. It has been a long damn time since I’ve done a video game review. The last game I reviewed was (unless you count my failed attempted Review in Progress for Persona 4) back in October of last year and it was El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Considering how anally I reviewed every bit of pop culture I consumed up until about two months ago when I finally pulled the cord on TV, this means I haven’t beaten a game since then. That’s sad. However, it’s par for the course for me because I have a bad history of not beating video games that I start. Especially RPGs [which are weirdly my favorite genre despite me rarely beating them)] because I just don’t have the attention span to stick with a game for 40-80 hours. I started this particularly playthrough of Mass Effect 2 on August 6th, and I put about 40 hours into the game. I’d beaten it before on the PC [more on that later and why this is strictly a review of the PS3 port] so I’m really surprised I actually stuck with it. Hopefully this is a sign of me actually maturing and being able to finish things I start. One can dream.)

I can remember in the old days of Game Informer that they used to post a separate review for each console’s version of a game. There were such vast differences between the PS2, XBox, and Gamecube that it was mandatory because the games simply weren’t going to be the same (and multi-console releases weren’t the overwhelming rule of the day at the time). They’ve stopped doing that and generally only include a minor aside saying whether one version of a game suffers in the porting. I bring this up first and foremost in my review of Bioware’s science fiction opus, Mass Effect 2, because having played the game both on the PC and the PS3, I can easily say that the PS3 version of the game is one of the worst port jobs that I’ve ever seen in my entire life to the point that it nearly ruined one of the greatest RPGs of this generation of gaming from the undisputed masters of the Western RPG.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise (or who were PS3 owners that didn’t have access to the first game when it was released only on the XBox 360 and PC), the Mass Effect universe is an intricately crafted and indescribably ambitious effort by Bioware to create an epic science fiction saga in the vein of Star Wars or the new Battlestar Galactica. Implementing player decisions over the course of three video games (the third was released this spring and was the impetus for me to go back and beat the second game on the PS3 since that was the system I bought the third game on for complicated reasons), Mass Effect is an experiment in maintaining player choice at a grand and meaningful scale over multiple titles, and it’s a huge success. Only one other game (Heavy Rain) has ever made me weigh all of my choices with so much painful attention or punch me in the gut so strongly with real consequences for the things I’ve done.

This game is like two and a half years old now so I’m not sure if it’s a huge spoiler to delve into some initial plot points. After stopping rogue Spectre Saren Arterius from destroying the seat of galactic government and his army of evil A.I. known as the Geth, Commander Shephard is “killed” when a ship from a race known as the Collectors destroys his vessel, the Normandy. Commander Shephard is brought back to life by the pro-human splinter group known as Cerberus and tasked by its leader, the Illusive Man (Martin fucking Sheen), with discovering the nature of the Collector threat to humanity as well as come up with proof that a race of sentient machines known as the Reapers are on their way to wipe out all of galactic civilization. The game is the second in a trilogy and focuses on your attempts to build a team to stop the combined Collector/Reaper threat.

If you can’t tell from the assorted screenshots gathered here, Mass Effect 2 is a gorgeous game. Although facial animations (even in gorgeous games like Final Fantasy XIII or Heavy Rain) will always be ruined for me now because of the phenomenal work in L.A. Noire, this game’s use of lighting and color is — dare I say it — cinematic in scope. The humans are impressive if not the most realistic in gaming (I’m now playing Uncharted 3 as a break between this and Mass Effect 3 and it’s really setting a bar for overall graphical fidelity) but boy do the alien species look amazing. Whether it’s the salamandar-esque Salarians, the more humanoid but just as amphibuous Drell, or the impossible to describe in animal terms Turiand and Krogan, all of the alien species pass the uncanny valley tests that the human characters sadly fail.

I also hope that the broad plot description above didn’t sound too dull or cliche. The Mass Effect franchise is famous for its mature and philosophical storytelling. Over the course of your nearly 40 hour adventure, you will be faced with choices where what is right and what is wrong is almost never clear. In the first game, you had to choose which one of two crew mates (one potentially being your lover) would have to die to save the galaxy. Here your decisions are just as tough. Do you kill a daughter because she refuses to live by the code set for her by her mother and Asari society (and also kills because she’s genetically coded to)? Do you convince a scientist that his role in sterilizing a species was wrong even though his actions clearly saved trillions of lives? Do you effectively brainwash and pacify a sentient machine race or destroy them? You face decisions like that the entire game.

There were many cries of “Foul!” when Mass Effect 2 was initially released because it toned down many of the RPG elements of the first game to instead make the sequel a choice-driven third person shooter with RPG elements. It was the right call. Combat in the game is smooth and satisfying, and you never feel like you lost a fight because of a poor roll of the dice (which was far too common in the original). The guns handle smoothly and with a healthy selection of powers, you have plenty of ways to attack a situation (though you may come to rely on a few key abilities). Your allies’ A.I. is competent (if not amazing) and the enemy does its best to flank and outmaneuver you although patience is as much the key to victory as twitch shooting ability. Getting rid of the horrid inventory system and the clunky shooting did not harm Mass Effect 2 in the slightest.

Not every aspect of the game (before I get into the porting issues) was perfect though. In order to get the best ending for the game (one where all of your teammates survive), you have to upgrade your ship. In order to purchase these upgrades, you have to farm materials through a boring and usually infuriating mini-game that continually slows down the momentum of the game. As wonderful as the individual stories are for the team members you acquire — which you deepen through loyalty missions and conversations between levels –, the actual main story is far more hit or miss. The Collectors and Reapers pose a grand existential threat to the universe, but the blandness of fighting a race of evil aliens as opposed to a clearly defined bad guy (like Saren in the first game) robs some of the impact and directness that the original’s plot had.

The game simply has one of the greatest casts in the medium. I put it in the same league as Final Fantasy X (which I think wins the title hands down) as well as games such as Persona 4 and the Metal Gear Solid universe. One of my biggest problems with the first game was that the main story was phenomenal but far too many of your crew mates felt poorly fleshed out. In Mass Effect 2, you should leave the game feeling as if you know Mordin, Tali, Thane, Jack, Miranda, or anyone else in your party as well as some of your less close friends in real life. They’ll make you laugh. They might make you cry (poor, poor Tali), and sometimes they’ll make you do both at the same time. You don’t know funny until you’ve seen a Salarian doing a modified bit of Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s comedy gold. How close you become to your supporting players really adds to the drama that any of them can die (for real and be therefore dead in Mass Effect 3) by the time the game closes.

Now with the real issues. The PS3 port is just a hot mess. Mostly, it can be inconsequential stuff like audio. Sentences will seemingly clip off mid-sentence (and if you don’t have the subtitles on, you’re fucked as far as knowing how the sentence ends). There will be no background noise during important cut-scenes. People’s lip-syncing will be obviously off. These don’t disrupt the gameplay itself, but it reminds you that you’re playing a game and not actually embarking on a grand science fiction quest. Other issues are more problematic. The framerate will drop to absurdly low levels. Enemies and players will clip through the environment. Occasionally the game will bug and keep you from finishing a mission and you have to reload. The texture pop-in is really bad (which might have been an issue on the PC too. I don’t remember). All in all, I noticed a million technical bugs on the PS3 that I just never encountered when I first beat the game on the PC.

It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed games and I think I’ve lost my knack for it. It took me probably a year before I began to really feel proud of my movie reviews and it’s been nearly that long since I’ve touched games. Obviously, I have some work to do to improve. Thankfully, I’m going to make sure I keep practicing. If you have the chance to play the game on the PC or 360, you definitely should. Not only can you actually play the first game (instead of the interactive comic book at the beginning of this one on the PS3 to make key choices), but the game simply plays better. I would give the PC version of this game a 9.75. It’s as close to perfect as you can get without actually getting there. However, the Ps3 version of the game has enough flaws to at least partially lower the score but not enough to dissuade you from playing this phenomenal game if you don’t have another system to play it on.

Final Score: A-

So, I’ve decided to replay one of my favorite games of all time. It has this title despite the fact that I’ve never actually beaten it, which should speak volumes about how highly I feel about its story (which I’ve only experienced roughly 2/3 of). After a frustrating experience trying to re-accustom myself to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 a month and a half ago, I decided to actually go back and try and beat its far superior sequel Persona 4. The two games only share a universe and no major plot points, so it’s not a big deal that I haven’t actually finished Persona 3 either because like Atlus’ other games, it’s absurdly difficult (I’d rather fight certain bosses in Demon Souls because I at least know that game plays fair). So, I’m now replaying Persona 4, and I’ve decided to come up with a semi-novel way to approach my review for the game. For fans of the Persona series, you should know that the games take place over the course of one year, and gameplay is broken up into the discrete unit of a calendar day. So, I figured, what better way to ensure that I beat this game and devote time to it than to come up with a way that ensures I have to write posts at regular intervals in my gameplay (i.e. at the end of each in-game month). RPGs take dozens and dozens of hours to beat and the Persona games are notoriously long. If I approach the games in this method, it’s almost like I’m reviewing a TV series. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the town of Inaba and the murder mystery at the heart of Persona 4.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Persona series, this will likely be the only post you’ll want to read before the later ones become absolutely spoilerrific, so here’s the lay-out of the game. At its core, Persona 3 and 4 are what happens if you take the randomized dungeon crawling of Diablo, the monster catching and training of Pokemon, and then a high school social simulation of (no game whose name I can come up with) and put them in one pot. And it is a glorious, absurdly addicting amalgamation. Over the course of one year, your character (who you name) and his nakama (that’s basically Japanese for a group of very close friends) solve some supernatural threat that is terrorizing the populace of your town. You enter dungeons whose layouts change every night/day in order to get stronger and to capture new demons (known as Persona in this franchise) that you can combine to make even more powerful Persona. During your regular high school life, you create friendships and relationships (romantic or platonic) with your classmates, local children, and even grown-ups that in turn make your ability to create new demons even stronger. Every aspect of the game is interconnected with the other and it adds a wonderful layer of strategy and replay value to this game’s very deep combat system. Combat itself is mostly a standard turn-based affair (though you can thankfully actually control your teammates in Persona 4 unlike 3), but it’s your ability to create Persona just to your needs that gives the game plenty of strategic depth.

The basic premise for this game’s story is a great one, although as someone who’s put more than 60 hours into this game before, I know just how long it takes for it to really reveal its depths. The Main Character (whose canonical name in the anime adaptation is Yu Narukami which is how I’ll refer to him from now on) is a boy from the big city (Tokyo I’m assuming though possibly Iwotadai from Persona 3) who is sent to live with his uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, and his young cousin, Nanako for a year while his parents go away on a business trip. Not long after arriving in town, Narukami befriends three students in his homeroom class, the tomboyish kung-fu fanatic Chie Satonaka, the bumbling comic relief Yosuke Hanamura, and the quiet and reserved innkeeper’s daughter Yukiko Amagi. During the first week that Narukami is in town, the mistress of a local Congressman is murdered. Her body is discovered by another student at Narukami’s school, Saki Konishi, who Yosuke has a crush on. Saki eventually goes missing as well and is murdered (her body grotesquely hung from a satellite dish). The group discovers that if you watch your TV at midnight on a rainy day, you can see someone inside your TV. These are people who have been kidnapped. Unfortunately, the group discovers this fact too late to actually save Saki-senpai (she’s older than our heroes so she’s called Senpai. I’m going to be using a ton of Japanese honorifics in these reviews, just like the game itself).

Narukami-san quickly discovers that he can travel into TVs for reasons not quite explained (yet). Dragging Yosuke and Chie along (who is the son of the manager of the local department store, Junes, which the duo uses thanks to their massive TVs), the group enters the TV world and finds a never ending layer of fog and what appears to be a TV studio. After finding a creepy room with butchered pictures of the first murder victim, the trio run into a mysterious creature in a giant bear suit. His name is Teddie (natch), and he will become their contact in this Shadow world known as the Midnight Channel. Yosuke and Narukami enter the world on their own to try and investigate the disappearance of Konishi-senpai again when they are attacked by beings known as Shadows. Narukami manifests a power known as Persona which allows him to draw a creature out of the depths of his soul to aid him in battle. Yosuke rushes off on his own where he is confronted by his Shadow self which is the reflection of the dark side of his personality. After they battle the Shadow Yosuke and Yosuke accepts this part of his inner self, he gains the ability to summon a Persona as well. When Yukiko-chan is kidnapped, Chie joins the investigation (where she gains the power of Persona as well) to find out who is kidnapping and murdering the people in the sleepy town of Inaba.

Future reviews will likely be devoted to me exploring the plot aspects of that particular month (whether this is the main story or the various people I meet and befriend. Actually the social link stuff will definitely be getting its own paragraph I think. maybe), but I just wanted to give a brief introduction to the game’s story. The fact that I’m calling that a brief introduction should say leagues about the game’s opening hours being ridiculously long. People joke about Final Fantasy XIII having the longest intro ever. No, that award goes to Persona 4. You literally go about 4 or 5 hours before you actually get to do any of the stuff that makes up the heart of the game (social links, real dungeon exploring, etc). That’s the reason this month gets a score of an “A-” instead of the “A” or “A+” I’d be tempted to give this game as a whole. Those opening hours are a bit of a drag. The writing and sharp realization of the game’s characters (which is really the best part of the whole game. This game’s stories and characters are pretty unparalleled) are as strong as ever, but this is a video game and interaction is an important aspect of the whole experience and for four or five hours, you just don’t really interact with the game outside of absorbing its immediately wonderful story.

The Persona games are hard… and even on the Beginner difficulty (which I’m not ashamed to admit I’m playing on because I primarily want to experience the game’s story again more than anything else), Persona 4 isn’t afraid to just completely kick your ass. If the Main Character dies, it’s an instant game over, and while the ability to control your team mates alleviates some of the frustration that mechanic caused in Persona 3, it can still be really annoying if a bad roll of the dice causes you to miss your intended target, and then the game proceeds to rape you with the elemental weakness system. I haven’t even gotten to the point in the game where enemies have actual one-hit kill spells that could easily erase an hour spent crawling around the game’s many dungeons. However, it’s difficulty does mean the game is more tactically engaging than 99% of other JRPGs because you are actually forced to spend time thinking about buffs and elemental resistances. This is without question one of the most difficult JRPGs I’ve ever played, and if you fancy a good challenge, Persona 4 will deliver.

Even though I’ve only been playing the game for half a month (You begin in the middle of April, so yeah, it will probably be a while before May’s review comes up considering I spend a good hour minimum each time I enter a dungeon), the story in this game is light years ahead of other video games in terms of maturity and emotional depth. Perhaps because I’m playing as normal high school students who stumble into an urban fantasy murder mystery (rather than your traditional JRPG cast of princesses, amnesiacs, thieves, rogues, kings, what not), the game’s cast feel like instantly recognizable teenage archetypes rather than your traditional power fantasy RPG heroes. I’ve always thought of the game as a very Japanese take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially since Yosuke is almost a direct expy of Xander. You deal with all of the pains and tribulations of being a teenager while you save the world. Thus, I care deeply more about any of these characters than I do about the cast of any Final Fantasy game and I love the Final Fantasy series. They all just seem so real and authentic, and thanks to the Social Link system, getting to know more about them and developing them as characters is an actual game mechanic. It’s wonderful. And I know just how much better it’s going to keep on getting.

I’m nearing 2000 words on this damn game and I haven’t even gotten into the game’s graphics. This was one of the last games I ever bought for my PS2. In fact, it might be the very last game I bought for it. And in the in-game engine isn’t very pretty. That’s the honest-to-god truth. Atlus cared more about delivering as much possible content into the disc than having cutting edge graphics, and for that reason, it’s just not a good looking game 80% of the time. It makes up for things in terms of a distinct art style, but that can only take things so far.  However, there are instances in the game when it switches to an anime-style for cutscenes, and those are all gorgeous. After the success of Catherine, I’m really excited to see Persona 5 on a current-gen system since they’ve proven that anime style is easily translatable to actual in-game graphics.

Ok hopefully, future posts should be considerably shorter since I won’t have to explain what this game is, give my opinions on the game mechanics (unless something new comes along that I find to be cool or frustrating) or generally rehash anything that simply hasn’t changed since this post. Here are some final thoughts. I want to strangle Teddie. His combat announcements are the most annoying thing in the history of video games (ok, that’s not true. That award goes to Vanille’s voice actor fromFinal Fantasy XIII, well that or Hope. god I fucking hated Hope). Honestly, at this point, that and the ridiculously long intro are my only complaints. I’m hoping that fans of the game will join me in on my ride here. In future posts, I’ll include stories about the social links I developed over the course of that month. Right now, I’ve only really started out with Yosuke, Chie, friends I made playing soccer, and a first-year in the band with me. We’ll be back in a month of game time (no idea how long that will translate to in real time), and I hope that you all return.

Final Score: A-

Xenogears (16 hrs. in)

I have such a wide range of interests that extend far beyond just movies (the primary focus of this blog) that I’ve decided to expand the ambitions of this blog a little bit and start writing about things other than movies. One of the primary reasons that I went on a three week hiatus from updating this blog at all was that I was so hell bent on beating Final Fantasy VII that I wasn’t going to let anything distract me from it. And while movies will continue to be the raison d’etre for this blog, I wouldn’t mind putting digital pen to digital paper on my other hobbies as well (music, TV, and video games particularly). So, to inaugurate this little experiment, I’ve picked the video game that I am playing currently, the PS1 cult classic, 1998’s Xenogears. With games like RPG’s (or really anything that’s going to take me a good long while to beat and not just a couple of sittings), I’m going to do reviews in progress and then reserve my final score for the very end. I’ve been playing this game for a couple weeks now to give you an idea of how far in I am and I’m at about the 16 hour mark.

Xenogears is made by the same group of producers and writers that were responsible for the SNES master-piece Chrono Triggers and later cult classics Chrono Chross and Xenogear‘s spiritual successor, the Xenosaga series. What this translates to for the unitiated out there is that the game has a really damn talented team behind in it, and as early into the game as I am, I can already tell that it shows. Like I said, I’m only about 16 hours in, and I can already tell that the story is both absolutely fantastic and seems like it’s going to get pretty complicated (which is fine by me).  The game takes place on the planet of Ignas, where two kingdoms, Aveh and Kislev, have been at war for centuries. The violence escalated when remnants of a past and technologically superior civilization are found. The remnants are giant robots called “Gears” that are used for fighting. Currently, the kingdom of Aveh is winning the war because they are being supported by a mysterious military force known as Gebler, which is far more technologically advanced than either of the two nations (and their ultimate motives have yet to be spelled out where I’m at in the game).

So far, at least, the main protagonist is a man named Fei Fong Wong, an amnesiac (i.e. the most common characteristic of a protagonist of a Square RPG), living the life of a painter in a small rural village. One night the village is caught in the cross-fire of two different groups fighting in the giant gears. Fei feels compelled to step into one of the gears to help defend his home but ends up awakening an inner power that destroys the entire village and kills many of its inhabitants. One of the survivors of the attack is his mentor, Citan Uzuki, who seems to have a past layered with more secrets and intrigue than a cast member of Lost. Citan and Fei eventually cross paths with a member of the Gebler military named Elly, that Fei seems to have known before he lost his memory. Also, they meet with a sand pirate named Bart, who is actually the long lost prince of Aveh who is in hiding because his family was ousted when Gebler invaded. Without wanting to ruin too much of the plot, I’ll leave it there, although needless to say, I’ve only begun, as a player, to unravel any significant amount of the different backstories and conspiracies at work in this game, and I can’t wait to keep going further and further in the plot.

Graphically, this is a PS1 game so by today’s standards, it looks pretty ugly, but unlike, say Final Fantasy VII, it has a fairly distinct art style that manages to keep it interesting. For one thing, it’s cut scenes don’t use pre-rendered 3-D graphics, but instead rely on beautiful, hand-drawn anime style cut-scenes, and each time that you are rewarded with an anime cut-scene, it usually means something awesome is about to happen, and they all look fantastic. Also, in a complete rarity for PS1 games, the cut scenes actually have voice acting, and by the day’s standards, the voice acting is pretty decent. The in-game engine uses 2-D character sprites in a 3-D environment/world. Think Final Fantasy Tactics. Honestly, this choice looks so much better than a lot of PS1 games that I’ve gone back and played that used 3-D polygon character models where the characters barely have any sort of distinguishing characteristics and just look like giant blobs.

The combat system is absolutely fantastic. While you still have to deal with random battles and it is your classic active time bar, turn based strategy combat, the game is fresh in that it utilizes a combo system (whether on foot or in one of the gears) where you combine strong, medium, and weak attacks to create character specific combos that do extra damages, as well as the different ether based attacks, whether that is chi or arcane or whatever each character uses. Even if each character takes pretty much the same combination of button presses to do their combos, all of the combat looks absolutely fantastic and saving up enough AP to unleash a huge flurry of combos on your opponents to kill them in one hit is always spectacularly satisfying. It is as much fun to kick your enemies’ asses on foot with martial arts, swords, whips, etc as it is to beat the living shit out of them with your giant robots.

I’ve still got dozens of hours left to put in this game, but I can’t wait to jump right back into it as soon as I can. I am honestly enjoying this game so far more than I enjoyed going back and playing Final Fantasy VII. It’s got the flaws that pretty much every JRPG has: random battles, excessive level grinding, mini-games that are a huge time sink for questionably useful rewards, etc. Yet, the surprisingly mature story combined with the awesome combat system and cool art direction make this an RPG that I believe I will actually finish on the first try, which as someone who has put over 60 hours into two separate Final Fantasy XII files without ever beating the game, is a rare feat.