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

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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.

Shadows of Mass Destruction. The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 2-Gameplay

Part 1-Intro

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

At this point in the Persona series, gameplay has truly become only part of the full experience.  Persona 1 and 2 had plots too, and a lot of characterization, but they were still as much gameplay delivery engines as any other game out there.  Starting in Persona 3, they put a lot more depth and content into their plots and characters, to the point where the gameplay is not the only selling point they have.  And for a lot of people, the gameplay is not even the main reason they get into the game.

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Yet, no matter how good your story, setting, characters, etc. are, if the game side of your, you know, game, isn’t up to snuff, the game as a whole won’t be good.  It’s been tried, and good plot really doesn’t make up for bad gameplay.  So even with the Persona series running head-first into the story-based wall, let’s start by taking a look at where you’re actually going to be spending most of your time when you’re actually playing the game.

By this point, we’ve already had two, but three, but really two, games in the Persona canon.  That’s enough to establish a pattern, right?  Although both of those games are rather distinct from each other, there’s still some common design elements that we can pull out here.

So, what is makes a Persona game, and how do those elements relate to Persona 3?  Well, thus far, to make a Persona, you take the typical for the time Shin Megami Tensei design, strip out a bunch of the more unique to the franchise and complicated features to simplify gameplay a bit and make it more accessible to the typical JRPG fan.  And then you come up with some crazy and experimental features that few if any other games in the genre are doing and make them absolutely central to the whole experience.  And then, of course, there’s the whole plot and themes making heavy use of Jungian Psychology personified, and the main characters with the variable stats and ability loadouts, the butterfly motifs, the vast sum of humanity summoning their own demise, multiple endings but not really, etc. Etc.  There’s lots of stuff in the recipe for a Persona, and it all carries through to this game.

And I suppose this is a good time to mention, for pretty much this entire retrospective, I’m going to be basing it off the FES version of the game.  For those not in the know, there was the original Persona 3, then, less than a year later in the US, Persona 3 FES which was basically Persona 3 with a bunch of DLC before DLC was a thing that you had to pay for, including a separate playable epilogue that we won’t get into here just yet.  Then, years later, there came Persona 3 Portable, which incorporated all the gameplay updates from Persona 4 into Persona 3, gave you a choice in the gender of your protagonist and with that vastly increased the amount of content, at turning a lot of segments from more directly interactive bits into visual novel scenes in order to fit it all on the PSP disc.  There’s a lot of discussion on which is better.  I roll with the FES version because… well, that’s just the one I have.  As much as the games industry obviously hates me for it with the remakes and rereleases and updates and Hyper Fighting Championship Editions Turbos they’re putting out, I make a practice of not buying games that I already own.  So, sorry, P3P fans.  Just going by what I have available to me.

Continue reading

Persona Dancing Games

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How did we end up in a world where there are three of these games?

Seriously, a rhythm game based on a series of JRPGs that somehow got successful enough to spawn two sequels?  How did that happen?

So, you remember that time, years ago?  The Persona series was great, everybody loved the last two entries, but the series hadn’t seen anything new except for the somewhat related Catherine.  Sure, they had given an opaque announcement for Persona 5, but we didn’t know anything about it except for “You are slave.  Want emancipation?”  Then one day, bam!  A slew of new games incoming.  Not just more details on Persona 5, but there was an announcement for a Persona 4 fighting game!  Really?  And a gameplay crossover between Persona characters and the Etrian Odyssey engine.  Huh.  And a rhythm dancing game with a new story based on Persona 4.  Ooookay.

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Those were some odd expansions.  The Persona series was very much a JRPG, and that genre doesn’t really have any natural overlap with others.  Sure, JRPG fans might well be fans of fighting games and what not, but there’s nothing that inherently makes a JRPG player more likely to get into those genres.  And yet, as time went on, and we got to see those games in action, well, things developed.  The fighting game turned out to be excellent, even by the genre’s standards.  The Etrian Odyssey mix?  Not so much.  So where did the rhythm game end up on that spectrum?

It’s good, but simple largely due to its delivery method.  There.  That’s the review.  Yeah, sorry, I spoiled that for you.  We’re not doing the traditional review here.   To be frank, you already know whether you want the game or not.  We’re just going to have some thoughts here.

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Frankly, the Persona dancing games are about as good of rhythm games as you’re going to get on the controller.  It’s mechanically sounds, your beats are usually well-suited to the songs, and the gameplay is complicated enough to be involved without being so complex as to be overwhelming.  Like all good rhythm games, it’s easy to get into but there’s a high skill ceiling, and it feels so viscerally satisfying to be hitting a good run.

But, on the other hand, this is a genre that has come to be defined by its alternative control methods.  Your dance pads, your plastic instruments, your microphones, or even without the peripherals, your motion controls or your touch screens.  The Persona dancing games are played entirely with six buttons and a stick.  That makes them way more accessible, but also limits the sort of complexity you’ll see in them.

Persona’s music is great.  Really, one of the most distinctive parts of the games, and for really good reason.  And you get that fully delivered to you here.  Along with some remixes of the classic songs of… kind of mixed quality.  Some of them really do improve on the originals, while others, not so much.  You do get to see some Names in video game composition adding their talents into these, and they hit a good place, for me, more often than not.

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The visuals are really interesting, although you’ll probably be paying more attention to the notes you have to hit than the dancers.  Everyone is mo-capped by a dancer in a different genre.  Most of them are rather distinct, and fit the character really well.  The historically prim and proper Haru Okumura does ballet, for example, while the rough and physically oriented Kanji is into a more wild take on locking, and the idol Rise dances just like an idol.  They’ll do all that in settings that either fall into the game’s story in Persona 4 Dancing or call back to distinct locations from the game for 3 and 5.  There have been plenty of times I’ve watched a replay just to see the dancing again.

The characters have always been one of the stronger parts of the Persona games, and one of the big draws with the Dancing games is they give you more time with them.  Persona 4 does so through its original story, while 3 and 5 don’t have a story of their own but have some more social link scenes with them to unlock.  I am impressed by how accurate their characterizations are, given that other side games tended to… let’s say… highlight certain aspects of certain characters to a degree beyond what they used to have in the source material.  It’s something I appreciated, but it really doesn’t go deep into the characters.  You don’t see them facing their personal challenges and growing as a person the way you do in the original games.  You might say that the Persona 3 and 5 Dancing games have a ‘plot’ of their own, but that’s really setting up for disappointment.  They have some animated excuses for why everyone’s found themselves in a dance party, but those are really better off ignored.  The more the game calls back to it, the more it just reminds you that this doesn’t make any sense, and then the game just gives up on it anyways at the end.  Persona 4 Dancing does have an original story, which I do have to give it props for, even if it’s just sorta… there.

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As I said, you know if you want these games or not already.  These are total love letters to the Persona games.  If you’re a fan, and the music is already drawing you in with its siren’s call, then there you go.  If you’re not already into the original, these have nothing for you.  I really enjoyed my time with these games, because I both love Persona and really enjoy rhythm games.  If you’re not into either, this game is probably not for you.  Again, the rhythm gameplay is simple, but really satisfying, and the music and characters call back to the original games in a way that really tugs on that part of my heart that wants to marry Persona.  And the games are basically the same, so if you enjoy one, you’ll enjoy them all.

Well, mostly.  This is totally a meta thing, but the games do have a bit of a different feel on them.  Persona 4 Dancing All Night feels like it’s experimental, it’s trying a lot of new and bizarre things, and it’s made for the fun of it.  It was made in a time when this had to force it’s own way into the market.  Persona 3 and 5 Dancing came out years later.  They don’t try anything significant that’s not already done in Persona 4 Dancing.  And there’s really no reason they should be two seperate, full priced games.  They came out at the same time, and each seem to be lacking in the amount of content and creativity you’d expect in a $60 game that follows in the vein of something earlier in the franchise.  I still really enjoyed the games, but the latter two just came with the feeling that they were made because they wanted my money rather than because they wanted to deliver a good experience to me.  I have a few issues with tone, as well.  In Persona 4, you already had a pop star as a party member, so that was already established there, but Persona 3 had strong themes of death and trauma, and having that imported into a happy fun dance game left feelings a little off.  Persona 5 fared better, but it was still a little weird seeing the agoraphobic and generally scared of people Futaba exuberantly prancing around in a bikini. I still had a fantastic time with them, and fell so far back into my old OMG Persona All the Time fanhood that I’ve been motivated to re-pick up the old 90-hour RPGs yet again.   For a love letter game like this one, driving me to commit to replaying the originals means that it’s probably hitting right where it needs to.

I am Thou… The Persona Retrospective: Introduction

So you remember last time we did this whole retrospective thing, when we were writing essays on each game of the Saints Row series and then all of a sudden they decided to release the fourth game about the time we would have finished up?  Most people would probably just write that off as coincidence.  But if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I am far from being most people.  After much consideration, I’ve been forced to come to the conclusion that I have magic powers.  If I write enough words about a series, it will put the arcane forces into motion and summon the next game into being.  It’s a heavy responsibility, but I’m going to use these powers for the good of everyone.  See, there’s one series that is truly among the best of its peers, yet hasn’t had a real sequel for half a decade.  I speak, of course, of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

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You’ve probably heard of Japan.  If you haven’t, it’s that place where approximately 28% of weird on the internet comes from.  They’re very committed to their craft of making everything weird, and very little passes through their hands unscathed.  Give them pillows, they turn those into girlfriends.  Mention Mein Kampf to them, they’ll make it a manga.  Try to teach them about Jesus, they’ll turn him into a busty, scantily clad blonde woman who’s constantly the victim of sexual aggression.

You thought I was joking.

You thought I was joking.

So I guess we should be glad that when introduced to the basics of Jungian psychology, they just ended up making a series of JRPGs out of them.

The Megami Tensei series is one of the longest running JRPG series there is, with the first game actually coming out a couple of months before the original Final Fantasy.  The series is known for several things, including its high degree of complexity and challenge, its heavy use of mythology and religion, and its high degree of focus on spin-offs in comparison to other series.

And it’s the last of those points that brings us to the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series.  One of Megaten’s first spinoffs, the series launched on the PS1 in 1996 and has been going strong since.  Probably intended as a more accessible gateway to the famously opaque main series, the Persona games certainly dial the challenge and complexity the series is famous for back quite a bit, ending up being merely really hard rather than Megaten’s standard controller-crunching difficulty.  In exchange, the Persona games are among the most character-driven and plot-focused of Megami Tensei’s offerings.  As the series go on, they only get better at this aspect, building up sprawling epics that absolutely will make you care about at least some of the characters on offer.

Both the gameplay and plots centers around the titular personas, the characteristics a person adopts to deal with others made manifest in the physical realm.  Every character in your party has formed their personas into some sort of god or mythical creature, and draws strength from them in addition to being able to summon them to deal with their enemies.  These personas are obtained through various means across the games, but they are the central pivot holding everything together.  Other bits of Jungian psychology, such as shadows and the collective unconscious, also get a fair bit of play throughout the series, but it is always the persona at front and center.

Battles are turn-based and often require quite a bit more thought than your standard JRPG.  Just hammering on the ‘fight’ button indiscriminately will get you nowhere.  Instead, you have to take advantage of the various strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your enemies to truly succeed.  The series has a heavy emphasis on dungeon crawling as well, with buildings twisting themselves into maze-like structures the likes of which would drive any engineer mad.  Resource management is also a central point of gameplay, moreso than most other JRPGs.

For the first three games, the Persona series is extremely experimental.  They’re constantly trying new things, including several that you’d be crazy to try to put into any serious game.  The experiments don’t always work out, but when they do, they work wonderfully.  In any case, playing these games gives you an experience that’s certainly unlike any other, and it’s honestly interesting to watch the series progress from being just a few alterations away from Shin Megami Tensei If… to being something so stridently different from any of the series’ other offerings.

The tone of the Persona games is a little more varied than the main series’ usual dour resolution.  In fact, this is one of the more optimistic series in Shin Megami Tensei canon, with your characters actively averting apocalypse rather than simply surviving and dealing with its aftermath.  That said, the series does take some really dark turns, moreso than many other JRPGs would dare.  Serious danger and death are always lurking in these games, but that does not mean there’s never any bits of levity.  In fact, some of the more memorable scenes from the series come from the characters just forgetting about the everpresent threats and just enjoying themselves for a while.

Just like last time around, we’ll be putting up a separate entry for each game.  These entries will contain a lot of words.  Hopefully, they’ll be good words, though.  We’ll be taking a look at every aspect of these games that my meager little brain can come up with.  And hopefully, I’ll develop a better understanding of them myself.  You can try to, reading over what I have to say about them.  Given the size of the series and the time it takes me to do these, it’ll likely take me a while to be complete, but I’m sure it’ll be a worthwhile journey.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some games to play.