Thoughts On: Persona 5

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I really am getting worse with the intervals between posts. What is it now, half a year since my last update? Oh well. Things get in the way as usual: work, play and writing. And speaking of play, I finished Persona 5.

First off, I’d just like to say: wow. What a game! It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve gone through a game so rigorous and so paced out as this – I thought it was never going to end. It’s a hell of a journey. Maybe that’s an overstatement on my end though, as I must shamefully admit now that while having played Persona 4, and the series predecessor Shin Megami Tensei III. I never actually managed to finish either – Shin Megami Tensei III because I lost the save file to it very far into the game, and Persona 4 because I got a bad ending and then proceeded to idiotically overwrite the save file with the new game plus condition, thereby forcing me to replay the game all over again (which I didn’t). I’d been pondering replaying Persona 4, but I never quite got around to it, and by the time the thought left my mind, Persona 5 was hot off the press. I say now that going into it, I knew nothing of the game beyond the one teaser trailer they showed at E3 a few years ago. The game was just something I wasn’t paying attention to – probably because of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain taking my personal hype spotlight. So, a few weeks ago I saw that it got released here in New Zealand, and I remembered the good fun I had with the series up to the point where I stuffed up and quit in self-disgust, so – after not having played a video game since the release of Dishonored 2 – I bought it for my Playstation 4. It’s safe to say the purchase went well beyond meeting my satisfaction.

Persona 5 has been getting rave reviews across the board, with 9/10s, 10/10s, 5 stars and marks of essentialmust play or buy it plastering gaming websites, magazines and videos across the net. It could be considered one of the greatest role-playing games of all time. I’m inclined to agree.

Some of the first things to hit me with this title was the sheer style of it. The art direction especially: every single function of the game is overlaid with this chaotic mish-mash of rebellious colours and displays. The user-interface is a beautiful mess, with text presented as though it came from the calling-cards used by the Phantom Thieves themselves, and the animated interaction of our main character playing with the very interface becomes a sort of hallmark – it makes the visual roguish nature Persona 5 wishes to intend an actuality. It’s a very creative way of incorporating the contents of the world with the system itself – though not an original concept, it achieves the merging of the world with the UI in a way that games like Fable 3 failed to understand; it’s fun. The music was another standout, it’s fantastic, so good that I actually downloaded the soundtrack (which is a very rare thing for me to do). It’s split between Shin Megami Tensei’s iconic epic rock performances during battles (more commonly for boss fights), but also moves away from Persona 4’s sunny and sometimes melancholy J-pop sound to a fresher, more upbeat, jazzy and funky mix of songs that give the game an even smoother vibe. However, my favourite part is how the developers have worked the music – somehow – into the gameplay with turn based battles not only becoming a game of strategy, but a chance to give flourish to your encounters by matching in the very actions of your party in time with the music: I seem to recall the countless hours I spent picking specific turns for my chance to time an all-out attack or baton pass along with the chorus to Last Surprise. It’s exhilarating; it’s fun; it’s just so cool. Persona 5 oozes style, and no matter how juvenile or questionable the game may become at times through the plot and many, many dialogue scenes, the style is always there, and you just get sucked into it.

In regards to the story, I know it’s not expected for a series like this to show off impressive writing; and it doesn’t. I suppose it fits into both cliches similar to most social simulator and Japanese role-playing type games – respectively, that of varied archetype personalities needed for more flavored interaction, and that of a plot which slowly ascends from relatively small-scale gambits to the ultimate finale: facing some form of End Being which tests the resolve of the main character’s spirit to the very last. It’s all overly dramatic in a very ‘anime’ way, and yet it works. The story keeps you wanting to know more, and the characters are there along with you to make sure the journey is that much more worthwhile: all of the additions to your circle are larger than life characters, each with their own distinct personalities that work well to clash and complement with each other as well as supporting the main character in their own unique manner. Airheaded-but-willful; Klutz-but-ferociously-loyal; pretentious-but-extravagant… The archetypes are there, and yes, they are designed in a certain ‘cut-out’ way, but for a game where pure style takes the reins over substance, it works. Yahztee Croshaw shared this sentiment too, in a rather complementary part of his usual cynically minded reviews:

I kept playing because I wanted to see what happened next. There’s a comparison to be made with Mass Effect here – both games are about forming a Scooby gang – but I like the Persona 5 Scooby gang members because they’re underdogs, they don’t open up to you straight away, and they’re expressive.

(Video here)

One thing the story did well however, was facilitate plenty of time for the battles. Underneath Persona 5’s stylish approach, the system remained as familiar to me as it was in Shin Megami Tensei III and Persona 4: that being, the gist of the system comes down to a turned based affair between your party of four and the enemy party of multiple weak or a single strong opponents – the primary Megami Tensei flare coming from taking advantages of strengths and weaknesses through skill types (similar to Pokemon, i.e. fire against ice or curse against bless) to rack up extra turns and pummel your enemy into submission. Persona 5 introduces the use of firearms though, allowing you all sorts of criticals, technicals and weak points to exploit (similar to the melee additions to your teammates based on their bond levels), and depending on the level of your confidants, access to ace moves like ambush shoot-outs or down shots – which sounds rather serious for a team of crime fighting high-schoolers, but it’s all contained within the less-visceral musicality of the game’s tone. It’s another tool and improvement in the arsenal of Persona’s battle system, which was already solid since the Playstation 2 era. My favourite part? The Demons! Though they’re called Shadows in the Persona universe, they’re basically identical to the entities from Shin Megami Tensei: a staggering amount of monsters based on real mythology from which you have all the chances of utilizing. Thanks to Megami Tensei’s bread-and-butter fusing system, you’re able to keep up the variety whilst climbing the power-levels of the game, cutting away the grind but still feeling like you accomplished the reward of the end-game Demons/Shadows available. Sorry, but what’s not awesome about being able to summon Thor, Dionysus, Metatron or the Moirae Sisters into battle with you?

Writing this soon after finishing the game, I’m left feeling a little empty. Persona 5 was a hell of a ride, it’s something I’ve not experienced since Metal Gear Solid V, and it’s something I doubt I’ll experience in a game for a very long time. I tend to say I’ve become a little distant from video games as media – what with my time being taken up by reading, writing and doing what I can to get through my final year of my degree – but every now and then, there’s a game that comes along and reminds me why I still play them. Persona 5 is that kind of game.

If you like video games and haven’t had the chance to play it, I urge you to try it, whether you rent it first or borrow it from a friend; whether you like role-playing games or Japanese games in general, it’s worth a try at least, I’m sure you wouldn’t regret it.

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Thoughts On: Fallout 3 & Fallout: New Vegas

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Anyone who knows me well, will most likely know my position on the Fallout 3 vs Fallout: New Vegas debate. And that position is that I prefer New Vegas. I want to discuss a little as to why I prefer it, but before I do I’d like to confess something to the hardcore fans of the franchise: I haven’t yet played Fallout 1 or Fallout 2. Yes I know, utter blasphemy, and I’m ashamed for not trying it. I’ve played quite a bit of Wasteland 2, which is actually made up from a majority of the team who made the original Fallouts, and I’ve been told Wasteland 2 is merely a modern echo of the richness that is the old Fallouts. So, someday I will get around to playing them. I would just like to point this out, as I know how frustrating it can be to read the opinions of somebody who acts as an authority figure on a franchise when they barely know anything.

Okay! Fallout: New Vegas, what to say?

I believe it was somewhere in mid-2009 I played Fallout 3. I was even more ignorant of the franchise back then, but I went out and rented it for my Xbox 360. My reason for renting it was because I noticed it was developed by Bethesda Game Studios, who had made The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – a game which I had played to death. I thought I’d get the same experience when it came to the engagement aspect. But going into Fallout 3, the first thing I noticed – and disliked – was its faded, dreary and sickly looking colour palette. I know this was intentional, to go with the style of radioactive decay and all that, but combined with Bethesda’s pitiful Gamebryo game engine the results were nauseating. I think the only way they got away with it in TES III and TES IV was due to their use of varied colour palettes and fantastical art styles.

Washington D.C. - as depicted in Fallout 3

Washington D.C. – as depicted in Fallout 3

The thing is, normally this is exactly what you want for a post-apocalyptic game. But the problem I felt was that the way Fallout 3 approached the wasteland made it clash with the world they were trying to depict. The main feature of the series is the fantastical setting of a 1950s United States that never ended. Even after the bombs dropped, you’ve still got the ballrooms boogieing and the fedoras tipping. It’s like time had stopped after the apocalypse and no one is moving on. The biggest disappointment for me was the way most of the quests just dealt with resurrecting aspects of the pre-war world in order to survive the limbo that is the post-war world. I personally never felt like I was able to experience the wasteland as anything other than looking back on the pre-war era with a sense of loss I never even had in the first place. Fallout 3‘s Capital Wasteland feels like a world you shouldn’t exist in – compare that to the post-apocalyptic worlds seen in Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog, where everyone knows the end but not the world before it, all that exists in their world is the will to survive. The Capital Wasteland is like nostalgia manifest, despite Fallout 3 taking place roughly 200 years after the world was destroyed in Nuclear hellfire.

But with Fallout: New Vegas, I saw something more. From the moment you leave Doc Mitchell’s home to the final Battle of Hoover Dam, you see in the Mojave Wasteland an unfamiliar world. The memory of the pre-war times isn’t there, instead we as players navigate ourselves through the complex societies, factions, legends and conflicts present within the game’s setting. Fallout: New Vegas for me feels like what you could describe as a post-post-apocalypse. You see manifestations of the old world that existed, but instead of making them the focal point of the story and lore, they’re fed into the lore of Fallout‘s post-war world. They’re given reason beyond simple game mechanics, which I felt Fallout 3 didn’t do because they treated these aspects as outliers to be affected sparingly by the player. Take the Church of the Children of Atom in Megaton for example: in-game the Children of Atom are treated like kooks, barely given notice by the people of Megaton, and it’s the same with Megaton’s settlers as compared to the rest of the Capital Wasteland. The only interaction you have with the Atom Bomb that gave Megaton its existence is to either disarm it – leaving the town as it always was with absolutely no effect on the world at large (no influx of settlers, no rumours within neighboring districts etc.), or destroy it – turning the entire town and surrounding area to glass – all this at the whim of a businessman with barely any investment in the town anyways. To me that felt quite juvenile and pointless beyond the little flash spectacle of a mushroom cloud and the Ghoul’d up Moira we were rewarded with for doing it. I much preferred the approach taken with Fallout: New Vegas, treating these outlying communities as one part of an interwoven tapestry that makes up the Mojave Wasteland, and interacting with any of these factions causes possible consequences within other factions. It’s interesting, and makes you appreciate that the world you’re in isn’t just one of people scraping by, living off the memories of time long gone. You’re in a complicated place, with complicated relationships.

The Burned Man - One of many strange figures in Fallout: New Vegas.

The Burned Man – One of many strange figures in Fallout: New Vegas.

One of the big arguments against Fallout: New Vegas that I’ve noticed, is that it’s too railroaded, and doesn’t offer anywhere the same amount of freedom game play wise as Fallout 3 does. But what I think people tend to forget with Role Playing Games is that you’re not playing a self-insert, free to do whatever they want as reflective of the person playing them. You’re creating and filling a role, meant to interact and grow off the world they’re introduced in, and doing what’s appropriate to the role they’ve made. Fallout: New Vegas does have a more linear focus yes, but it’s needed for your character’s progression – again, from Doc Mitchell’s to Hoover Dam, you the Courier are journeying through the great tapestry of lore that is the Mojave Wasteland, and in that process the Courier integrates themselves into that tapestry.

This is why I preferred Fallout: New Vegas. I appreciated how it made me a character within the world, rather than having it make a world around my character. Sometimes, it’s good to play an RPG that doesn’t make you a self-insert, but rather an established part of the world that forces you to go out and seek answers yourself instead of letting you create answers based on your personal preference. Hopefully, we see this kind of approach taken with the upcoming Fallout 4 – although I really doubt it. Anyways that’s enough rambling, if you enjoyed Fallout 3 but haven’t tried Fallout: New Vegas, or you like lore rich RPGs but haven’t tried the Fallout franchise, give it a go.

And remember,
True to Caesar!

Thoughts On: Michael Kirkbride & The Elder Scrolls

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Now here’s a topic more people may know about – Bethesda Softwork’s The Elder Scrolls: a high-fantasy video game series set within the world of Nirn and its main continent Tamriel, in which nearly all the games take place. Now normally I’m a bit picky when it comes to video games I find exceptionally interesting, especially amongst the circle of the Role-playing game genre, but The Elder Scrolls stands out to me because of mainly one thing: the lore. Now since their first title, –TES: Arena – the initial world was laid down by the old Bethesda team members such as Ted Peterson,Vijay Lakshman, Julian LeFay and Chris Weaver; later members would come as the development for TES: Daggerfall, TES: Battlespire and TES Adventures: Redguard called for larger staff, but it wasn’t until TES: Morrowind that the scope really began to take off into the popular franchise that it is today. And it’s from Morrowind we come to encounter the work from Michael Kirkbride.

Now I can’t stress enough for fans or people who have played a TES game that Kirkbride isn’t the sole reason the games are as they are, that’s far from the fact, as video games are immense team efforts rivaling that of film production. So to praise one member for the result of the game would be unfair on all the other team members who toiled away on the project. No, Kirkbride’s work is more of a personal interest to me because of the way he brought a serious ambiguity and almost esoteric attitude to the meta-physical aspects of The Elder Scrolls universe. Don’t worry, I’ll try not to use those words too much.

Concept Sketches from Kirkbride - The God-King Vivec

Concept Sketches from Kirkbride – The God-King Vivec

What I like about Kirkbride’s approach to the world building of TES is the blending of mysticism and spiritual philosophy into the outer fringes of the seemingly concrete fantasy world. It works well for the kind of players – like me – that seek to explore the deeper aspects of the game, because with the physical depth, we are able to enjoy the richness of the open world setting alongside its plethora of characters and conflicts – but beyond that immediate presence we might begin to wonder about the world itself; the history; the science; the creation, why? This is where Kirkbride’s writings begin to entice us towards ‘the deep end’. Throughout much of TES:Morrowind, TES:Oblivion and TES:Skyrim you’re able to access a lot of in-game lore through characters, quests and especially books. And it’s these books that are an exceptional look into a world beyond the one you’re playing; books like Spirit of the Daedra and N’Gasta! Kvata! Kvakis! present to you a greater underlying narrative that is constantly being laid down into the foundations of the Elder Scrolls universe. Kirkbride takes this further with his development on some of the sketchiest parts of the universe: for example, the book Where Were You When the Dragon Broke?  that was written in TES:Morrowind, was on part a response to the events of TES: Daggerfall in which multiple endings occurred due to Bethesda’s desire to facilitate player outcomes of the story, normally one of these endings would be declared canon and the rest dismissed, but what instead occurred was an in-game explanation known as ‘the Warp in the West’ in which all of these events occurred simultaneously. Where Were You When the Dragon Broke? is a development on this concept; the Dragon referring to the God of Time, Akatosh, and how the ending events of TES: Daggerfall were so powerful they disrupted the authority of Akatosh, momentarily breaking linear time. Now some of you would start to wonder that all this begins to feel terribly convoluted, it’s not what you remember in the main quests! And you’re probably right, delving into these texts probably invites a lot of confusion, and starts to undermine the solid foundations of the series’ universe. But to me that’s where half the fun is, because those who seek out these concepts will begin to see their presence within the surface levels of the game. Perhaps the most memorable concept of Time present within TES is within TES: Skyrim: in which you must expel the Dragon Alduin; if you had further done your research you would begin to recognise the terms ‘Dragon Break’ and ‘World-Eater’, that had been present in one form or another within the texts of the earlier games.

The Dragon God of Time - Akatosh

The Dragon God of Time – Akatosh

I really appreciate this sort of work on a universe like TES, where the scope is so daunting that to experience it all is only on the whim of the player. But the reward for undertaking such efforts enriches your experience with the game. The only issues I started to see, were with these lore texts written by contributors – including Michael Kirkbride – who had left Bethesda Studios, and the validity of their canon beginning to become a matter of preference and developer approval. I think the most glaring of these texts has to be the project, C0DA: an intended comic written by Kirkbride that takes place in the far future of the TES universe. The ambiguous and downright cryptic attitude to the narrative has led many people astray in terms of looking for an explanation (I personally haven’t given a read yet, as I was hoping to wait until I could enjoy it in the comic book form he had intended for it), however what I believe many have concluded is that it tries to explain the non-canon nature of the universe, making it easier for those to decipher their own reasonable interpretations of how the grand narrative is. This is something I find pretty interesting, not so much for the content but the idea of so much work and effort going into the narrative, I could dare even say it’s almost in reference to the grand religious texts of Abrahamic or Vedic traditions – the contribution of many to the greater narrative.

Anyways, I think it’s time to tone down. The short line is, I think the universe of The Elder Scrolls is a vast and complicated creation, and this in part can be attributed to the efforts of Michael Kirkbride and his many mystical revelations in the writing. I suppose I can only hope for those who played the series to maybe come back into it with a new appreciation for the world Kirkbride and Bethesda made. Also, for those who are familiar with the TES canon, be sure to check out some of his work on The Imperial Library, some of the extra writings on VivecTiber Septim and Cyrus the Restless are quite interesting.