You Best Took it Serious When You Heard the Tone. The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 3: Presentation

Part 1-Intro

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 4-Setting

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

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As previously mentioned (several times), the Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole saw a big shift that would change the direction it took forevermore with the release of Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne.  Nocturne was really the first of the modern Megaten games, changing nearly every aspect of game design.  That game brought a whole new level of design, tone, creative direction, and immersion to the series that the rest of the games would follow.  So too does Persona 3.  A lot of them are gameplay focused, covered in the previous section.  There’s a couple that impact the way that the game presents itself.

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One of the biggest changes Nocturne made was moving the series away from the old-school CRPG-inspired model into something more akin to the typical turn-based JRPG.  But Persona was always a series that was more JRPG-esque than the typical Megaten.  So what does Nocturne bring there?  Well, it turns the Persona series into a more modern JRPG.  Starting with the POV.  Your Point of View is something you probably don’t think very much of in games, but it can have a big impact on the how feel of the game.  In this case, the POV, lowered a bit closer to your character than past Persona games, serves to put you more into the action.  There’s more of a sense of energy as you’re navigating the dungeon, with the walls zipping by you and the shadows right in your face.  Battle will place you right behind your lead, feeling the enemy’s presence as they tower over your character.  School will… feel… schoolier because of… you there…. okay it’s getting away from me at that point.  Point is, even compared to other games of its genre, Persona 3 will play with your point of view, particularly in the battle section, to make you really feel what’s going on.  The camera’s zipping and zooming and makes sure you’ve got that scale of your guys against the bad guys, and it’s both rather effective and mostly unnoticed, just like you want good camera work to be.

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Art design is another really big update to the game, here.  Nocturne saw art director Kazuma Kaneko make big designs to all the series’ demons, creating a very distinct style and specific appearances that would be used until this very day.  Persona 3, as with nearly everything else, makes use of those same demon designs for your personae.  However, this game saw the rise of Shigenori Soejima into the head art role, as Kaneko was wanting to stretch his protege’s skills.  Soejima was already character designer for Persona 2, and the characters in this game follow along those lines, creating a distinctive slim, lengthened character design for the series that would become rather distinct.  With Soejima charged with designing everything else, it would create something that stands apart from the rest of Shin Megami Tensei.  The shadows take particular note, becoming tarot-inspired bastardizations of rather common real world items and creatures.  Beyond that, though, Tatsumi Port Island, where your characters spend most of their day to day lives, appropriately looks a lot brighter, cleaner, and more active than the typical post apocalyptic Megaten game or even the typical fantasy settings of the time, while the various settings of Tartarus manage to successfully convey the odd otherworldiness of the collective unconscious it resides in.  The dark hour scenes look particularly striking, effectively taking the otherwise normal and pleasant looking places and using largely coloration to instill them with a sense of wrongness.  The art design of the game is really on point, and manages to carry the anime-style off well while introducing enough twists on there to make it unique.

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And that art style is important, because you see a lot of it in the story delivery.  A lot of it is dealt in a somewhat visual novel-esque fashion, lending more to the comparison than just the social linking part of the game.  See, stuff goes deeper than you expected.  Even for the internet.  Even for the Persona-fan part of the internet.  Which is a much angrier place than even normal games internet, for whatever reason.  A lot of the plot things are all text boxes and character portraits, in front of the 3D rendering of whatever’s actually going on.  It’s not a very visually active means of telling a story, to be sure, and it takes some patience to enjoy.  I’m a fan of visual novels, so I had no problem of it, but it’s not for everyone.  It does lead to a bit of an odd dichotomy, where when things are physically happening, it’ll be rendered with your in-game characters and their animations, but then they’ll freeze and you have those 2D drawings and text boxes for all the speaking parts.  Animations in the non-gameplay scenes are understated and kind of stiff, and would be more fitting with PS1 types of 3d animations than they are with the PS2.  The story is really text heavy, though, and the strength of the writing is really what saves it.  The music and the quality of voice acting also go a long way towards injecting a sense of energy into what are otherwise static and still scenes.  You do get the occasional anime cutscene injected in there.  They’re few and far between, as, you know, budgets used to be a thing that games tended to stick to before the HD era, but when they are, they tend to be pretty striking.  The visual animation of those are really on point.  Sound balancing leaves a lot to be desired, but they also tend to portray a lot of the most visually well-designed moment.

This is also where the series established another constant of giving each game a theme color.  In this case, a light blue (unless you’re playing the FemC in the PSP version, in which case you get pink) covers every gameplay element there, from your HUD to your menus to your battle selection, both adding a cool and eerie component to your visuals as well as complementing the melancholy and trauma you’re often facing.  Every bit of the daytime scenes are designed around this, as this blue is almost omnipresent, and your locations and characters are all either designed full of cool colors that complement this, or given the direct contrasts in a poppy red or orange to make them sharply stand out.  This switches in the dark hour, though, in which a sickly green replaces the blue and invades everything, with a muted green filter being placed over the visuals while contrasting dark red bloodstains appears over everything.  It’s stunning how constant this palette is over the 80 hour game without being overwhelming, and I really have to say, Persona 3 uses its coloration better than most any other game or piece of work I’ve seen, giving much more thoughtfullness to it than the “Orange and blue and call it a day” that would pervade the later years.  The idea of having a theme color was so strong that the persona series would retroactively add it to rereleases of the previous games, giving the original Persona a deep steely gray theme and the Persona 2 duology a dark, muted red.

So art style is good.  I’m glad for that.  Because the graphics aren’t going to knock your socks off.  Unless you’re not wearing socks.  They might shift them in your drawer a little bit.  They’re perfectly functional.  They carry the strong art design smoothly, they make the visuals very understandable, and they’re never in the way.  But they don’t go super far, either.  This is not a graphically impressive game.  It’s not bad at graphics.  They’re just there.  They’re OK.

What’s made the Persona series very distinct is that it takes place in modern times, in a familiar Japanese city.  The visuals do carry it over well, here.  The environments in Tatsumi Port Island are very detailed.  Well, the school’s a little bland, which is a shame, because you’ll be spending a lot of time there, but maybe Japanese schools are bland in the first place.  I don’t know.  I’ve never been to one in meatspace.  Out on the town is full of details.  Train stations are busy and packed places, the mall is full of distinct stores, your dorm is very personal, the place looks to be very lived-in.

And, of course, there’s the music to talk about.  So let’s talk about the music.  Music in games can be a weird thing.  It’s not going to make you have a good time if the game is at its core not great.  And a great game with bad music can still be great.  Music isn’t going to make or break your game.  And yet, it can make or break your overall experience.  Music is emotion.  It’s drive.  It’s energy.  One of the big challenges with any artistic medium is making the viewer feel a part of it.  Making them feel what’s going on on screen, or on stage, or whatever.  The right music has the power to connect with that more directly than most anything else.  It will make the emotional roller coaster reach greater highs and lower drops.  It will hit you with the adrenaline of those cool action scenes.  It will help you care about those characters, even if they’re facing things you never have and never will need to deal with in life.  Music will not deliver something that’s not already there, but it will make what is hit you like a brick.

And the music in Persona 3 is top notch.  In yet another series-setting trend, the Persona 3 soundtrack is so decidedly modern, in keeping with its modern setting.  Other RPGs work their orchestral soundtracks, give you beautifully composed multilayered songs, make their string instruments weep for you.  Nah, Persona 3 gives you Lotus Juice rapping his way through half the game.  It’s hip hoppy, it’s modern, and it really adds a lot to the sense and tone of the game.  It’s not all vocal tracks, of course, there’s plenty of the more orchestral stuff in there too, and they are really rather strong.  But it’s the Jpop and hip hop tracks that really seem to add the most atmosphere and distinctness to the game.  The music is fantastic, and I’ve been known to have the soundtrack on repeat as I’m going throughout my day.  Some of the songs are truly touching.  Memories of You still brings me big sexy manly tears whenever I hear it in context, and the fact that later releases insist on remixing and changing it is one of the few things that makes me nerdrage.

That said, there are a few problems with their implementation.  The orchestral songs are mostly solid, but it seems they didn’t have as much experience with handling the vocals.  Some hit really well.  Some are just oddly placed.  Biggest example is the one that’s playing when you’re hanging out in your dorm.  It’s a relaxing place.  You chat with your party, watch some tv, maybe work on some homework, there’s no danger, no rush, no pressure there.  You’d expect a similarly chill and low pressure take.  Instead, you get a song with a driving, sharp beat and harsh deep rapping.  Likewise, there’s Mass Destruction, also known as BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY, the battle theme and therefore the song BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY you’re going to be hearing most often in that game BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY.  And frankly, it can do without the BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY intro.  It’s jarring, and frankly gets annoying with its frequency, given how much it pops up.  With game music, you want something that can stay in the background of your mind, generally, and vocals grab your attention much more than instrumentals do (which is why the game’s vocals are in English, to give the Japanese players this benefit, but that’s not going to help us on this side of the language barrier).  If lead-in to the song had been instrumental, I feel it would have been a smoother transition and jumping into a fight wouldn’t have felt so harsh, but as is, you will get tired of hearing that BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY long before it’s done with you.

But those are really just nitpicks.  Overall, the soundtrack is really fantastic.  It’s well composed, breaks a lot of new grounds, combines orchestral composition with rap with jazz instrumentation, and adds an immeasurable amount to the game’s proceedings.  It hits hard in what’s usually just the right ways.

Eyes on Neon Drive

There’s something to be said for those games that will take a simple concept, distill it down to its purest essence, and then build something beautiful out of it.  Something that’s so simple to talk about, yet so complex in its execution.  You get that in your Tetrises, in your Pac-men, and now, in your Neon Drives.

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We’re going to call Neon Drive, made by the how-the-heck-do-you-pronounce-that developer Fraoula, a ‘Rhythm Driver’ here.  Yeah, we’re breaking the boundaries of genres even as we recreate them.  Ok, not really, because Neon Drive is really just a rhythm game at its core, but it takes place in a car, on a street, you know, driving.  So like I said above, really simple in concept.  At its base level, there four lanes you can move between.  Your car automatically moves forwards, and obstacles come along the path forcing you to switch between lanes in time with the music to avoid them.

And that’s that.  Well, mostly.  Again, really simple in concept.  And yet they make it work.  It’s not an epic experience or anything, but I had a good time with it when I first came across the game a few years ago, and I had a good time with it again when I picked it up just recently.

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The music and aesthetics are a big part of it.  Most of what I know about the 80s, I know from games and movies trying to be deliberately retro, so I’m pretty sure the era was all about neon and sci-fi and synth-heavy soundtracks and that weird segmented sun and really, really bad hair and clothing.  Except for the last bit of it, this game seems to pull it all off well.  Especially the music, that really stands out.  I do have to commend this soundtrack, it’s pumping and driving and manages to not get old even as you listen to the same segments over and over again because this game is really hard.  And it sounds so appropriately 80s, and is tailored really well to the challenges you’re facing in the game.  The music and your movements mesh together so naturally, sometimes it feels like you could get through the obstacles with your eyes closed if you just followed along with the music.

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And then you crash and burn because even with all that, the game is hard.  It’s very heavily skill-based.  It requires reflexes, planning, and absolute precision, and it will make you replay the same sections over and over and over again until you get it right.  It’s interesting how it builds those skills up in you, however.  It can take you a long while to get there, but once you get to the point where you can beat a level, you’ll be able to do it again and again like nothing.  I remember, it took me about two hours to beat all seven levels when I first played the game a few years ago, a feat the developers have stated makes me certifiably superhuman.  I hadn’t touched the game at all in the interim, but picking it up again here, I was able to move through that same set of levels with very little trouble.

Then I got to the new 8th level.  That one is absolutely brutal.  I hate that this game keeps track of how many times you’ve tried but failed, because I truly embarassed myself on the last one.  If you can beat that one, you’re a better Neon Driver than I.

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It is pretty short.  There’s only 8 levels, and if you can get through them in a single go, each level only takes you about two minutes.  I feel like it makes full use out of being compact, though.  Each level switches up the gameplay somehow halfway through, whether by switching perspectives, turning the obstacles into oncoming traffic, transforming your vehicle entirely, etc., and each one does it in a different way.  Again, I finished it my first go around in about two hours.  The 8th level can extend that some, if you’re going to put in the time to get through it.

And, you know what?  That’s all I’ve got to say about that.  It probably comes across a lot better in action than it does in spoken word, so check this out to see a bit of what I’ve been going through.  

Music in the Mainstream Game

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I’m still alive. I know you were probably wondering about that, given how long it’s been since my most recent post. Well, yeah, still here. I’ve been fighting long work-weeks, the flu, and two other posts that are taking more time than I expected to finish properly, hence why you haven’t seen much life from me lately. But we’re going to change that right now! We’re back baby, yeah!

So here’s a topic I’ve been mulling over for a while: what exactly happened to video game music? At least in broad market AAA titles, a game’s music barely seems worth noticing. It wasn’t always this way. Whistle the first two bars of the Super Mario Bros. theme, and any gamer who’d even touched that game will be instantly brought back to to those memories. It’s a very distinct and memorable song, that perfectly captured the mood of World 1-1. And they did that using only a small selection of bleeps and blorps. Compare that to Skyrim, where outside of the main theme and its various remixes, they didn’t even bother giving most of their music melodies. Most of the background music is simply long chords. It’s basic, incredibly boring, and most of the time you’d probably have to be reminded that there was music playing in the first place. Skyrim is definitely the worst case I can think of right now, but other modern AAA games aren’t much better. Think of Mass Effect 3, where most of the music was an incredibly simple one- to two-bar melody played repeatedly over basic chords. There’s no progression, the song doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s just kind of there. And it’s seeming to me that most games aimed at hitting the mass-market are doing the same with their music. Think of a modern AAA title you’ve played. Can you even remember more than one song from the game? Music is one of the strongest weapons in a game developer’s arsenal towards guiding the player’s emotions, and the tools to implement music in games are better than they’ve ever been before. There are definitely great composers in the video game industry. Why is it then, that the titles that are getting the most attention are getting the worst music? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve got a few ideas under the cut.

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