BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY! The Persona 3 Retrospective! Part 1: Introduction

Persona Retrospective Introduction

(Revelations:) Persona

Persona 2:Innocent Sin

Hell yeah!  We’re back with this!  It’s been, what, four years since we did the last entry in our much vaunted Persona Retrospective?  You thought I gave up on it, didn’t you?  And look at how much a fool you are now!  No, you gave up on me!  You think four years matters to one such as I?  I never forgot.  And I never quit.

Well, maybe I did.  Sort of.  You may notice that rather than finally doing the second half of Persona 2, I’m coming right in your face with Persona 3.  That’s true.  And I’m sorry.  I’ve actually tried a couple of times to get the next step in this retrospective going with good old Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, and I just can’t.  I was halfway through the game when I made a big cross-state move and life transition, and couldn’t keep up with my usual playtime in the aftermath.  Then, sometime later, I picked up Persona 2: Innocent Sin again with the intention of getting background on that for the eventual Eternal Punishment analysis, but frankly, although the Persona 2 duology does a lot of really unique things and is a very interesting game in all, its design has aged a bit.  Not as poorly as many other games, but I found, with a lot of things I was going through then and continue to go through now, I just didn’t have the patience for it.

So we’ll skip it and come back to it later.  For now, it’s Persona 3 right up in your grill, suckers!

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Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh Aether, you sexy hunk of pure genius, isn’t your time already very full?  And didn’t you just start another project where you’re going to be reviewing all the Godzilla movies?  Are you really going to be able to keep up with another commitment?”  And sure.  That would be what sensible people would think.  But I’m to busy being awesome to be sensible.  I’m not one to let fear of failure or fear of commitment stop me.  I’m going to bite off more than I can chew.  And then I’m going to chew it.

In case you haven’t noticed, I like talking about the thing that I’m going to be talking about for a good while before I really get into talking about them.  But let’s get into that now.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3

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Okay, up until this point in the subseries, Persona games have been all about taking the ethos of the greater Shin Megami Tensei series and making it more familiar, more accessible, and more character-driven, while also experimenting the hell out of it.  Shin Megami Tensei has been very WRPG-influenced, and the Persona subseries takes that and fits it into a JRPG shell, creates room for a hell of a lot of character exploration, then adds a whole lot of new, wild, and largely unpolished features onto it.  Persona 3 follows on in that progression.

But it’s also the turning point in it.  See, Persona 4 and 5 don’t carry the same wild experimentation the earlier games did.  Instead, they take the model that Persona 3 built, and polish it further, and further.  And they make beauty out of it.  Persona 3 is a fantastic game.  But it’s like a raw gem.  It’s valuable.  It’s beautiful.  But it needs some rough edges pared off and a lot of polish to really shine.  Persona 3 is a turning point in the Persona subseries.  This is where, I would say, it really hit true greatness for the first time.  And the developers recognized it, and went in the same direction for future entries.

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To really get into Persona 3 and what makes it what it is, we have to talk about another game.  Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.  The first SMT game of the PS2’s era.  And it would represent as much of a shift for the SMT franchise as a whole as Persona 3 is for that SMT subseries.  Shin Megami Tensei games had largely stuck to its classic WRPG influences all through the SNES and PS1 entries, but by the time the 6th console generation had rolled around, frankly, technology had far outpaced that mode.  Even WRPGs themselves were drastically different from the Ultima/Wizardry days.  The technology was capable of so much more than the pure first person grid-based dungeon crawler with minimal world interaction was providing, and the largely 2d and simple visuals those games utilized were growing outright bland in that new world.  So Nocturne brought the series roaring into the new era.  Fully 3d environments, visuals that more accurately represented the urban apocalypse the series brought through, more involved visual storytelling, and a completely redesigned crew of monsters that would be distinctive of the series for years to come, it’s presentation has made SMT what it is every since.  The gameplay updates were no slouch either.  Battles were no longer matters of numbers against numbers, but made much more strategic with the press turn system in which the amount of turns you have were tied to your manipulation of elemental strengths and weaknesses.  Enemy encounters designed so that even basic random battles would test you, requiring so much more than just mashing attack as was standard for most RPGs.  Dungeons built so that the important thing in success is your long-term resource management across hordes of challenges as much as your ability to overcome individual battles.  It created design elements that had ramifications across the entire series.

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And all of that carried through to Persona 3, in some form.  Previously, the SMT series had a more eclectic and varying mix of demons and what roles they held.  Nocturne really codified and brought consistency to the mythological set of demons the series held, and Persona 3 slotted them firmly into the role of your personas.  Your enemies and adversaries were made completely different in both tone and origin, marking the first time the series had such a significant demarcation between persona and enemy.  They use the same visuals for the beasties, too, as do all 3d SMT games from that point further, building and taking advantage from the Shin Megami Tensei trademark design.  The press turn system was imported in a more limited form, with both you and your enemies being able to gain a single extra move for targeting your opponent’s weakness, or lose one if your own are hit.  Tonally, well, SMT has always been about destruction and apocalypse, but Nocturne brought new impact to that in the 3d era, and Persona 3 took that and run with it.  Although it’s not as dire as Nocturne was, it’s still rather oppressive, and it takes that to a more personal level.

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Persona 3 is generally considered the first of the modern Personas, and to many people, apparently Atlus included, the subseries starts here as far as they’re concerned.  This is the first game that has the social link system, where a lot of emphasis is on getting to know and helping NPCs through a sort of visual novel/dating simulator-esque interface, that has become such a series trademark and one of the biggest draws of Persona games.  Although 4 and 5 would make minor updates to it, this is also where they established the game model largely used in everything following.  Whereas previously, every character could use multiple personas, but had some limits on them, and a lot of their capabilities were based on their stats, starting with Persona 3, only your main character could use multiple personas but they had no limits on them and their stats were determine by said persona, making your main character effectively over a hundred characters you could choose from.  These is where you get Lotus Juice and the Jpop soundtrack setting the mood, driving home just how modern this series is in comparison to others of its genre.  The Persona series had been pretty heavy with its theming and storytelling in the Persona 2 duology, but this is the first time the series with so deep in its plot and multi-layered in its themes.  Everything where you have a certain amount of days to do everything you need to do while the plot and conflict progresses on a fixed calendar, where managing your available time as a resource is essential, where basically everything in the combat engine comes from, it all comes from here.  Persona 3 represents not just a paradigm shift in the Persona series itself, it was so utterly different from every other JRPG out there, and yet, for all its experimentation, it still came together in a fantastic form.  Honestly, it’s no wonder this is the model all the rest of the games took after.

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Marvel’s Spider-Man’s Unique Take on Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is where a work will let you in on some sort of information that the characters therein are not privy to.  So it’s when you know something that the characters don’t know.  When your game cuts away from the PC party to show you the bad guy’s meetings where they talk about their future plans in strangely vague terms, that’s dramatic irony.  When the horror movie lets you see hatchet killer lurking around the abandoned house before the soon-to-be victims head inside, that’s dramatic irony.  When your novel is switching between characters who each have a piece of the mystery told to them, that’s dramatic irony.  So yeah, it’s super common, in most every storytelling media.

Why is it used so much?  It’s a really effective way of generating tension, and it’s relatively easy to direct that tension into whatever emotion the creator is trying to instill while you’re driving for that tension to be resolved.  If you know the character is about to get got but the character doesn’t, you’re going to feel it.  You’ll get that tension that then turns into anticipation, or fear, or worry, or what have you.  Or it works for positive emotions as well.  You may get excited waiting for a character to get a fun surprise that you know is coming to him or her.  Or hell, just think of how much comedy is based on misunderstandings.  Guess where that’s coming from.  Dramatic irony.  Awww yeah.

I’ve been playing Marvel’s Spider-Man lately.  And it’s been making me happier than any game has for a good long while.  But you don’t need me to talk about that.  There’s words about it all over the internet.  Hell, I picked it up after a very solid review from Red Metal, so you can head there if you want to find out why the game is great.

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What I’m wanting to talk about today is Spider-Man’s use of dramatic irony, because it comes from a very unique source that I find rather interesting.  So, much like Batman, Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is one of the most notable parts of the IP.  Spider-Man is awesome, but he’d only go so far if he didn’t have awesome villains to oppose him.  And if you asked people on the street who the prototypical, the most notable Spider-Man villain was, you’d get one of three different answers: The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, and of course, the most legendary, trail-blazing, dominating villain in superhero comics history, the Kangaroo.  To all of our disappointments, the Kangaroo is not in this game, probably being saved up to be the central figure in the sequel.  However, Doc Ock and the Green Goblin are both in there.  Well, sort of.  And that’s where things get beautiful.

As Red Metal had reported in his review, the developers of Marvel’s Spider-Man were given carte blanche to play around with the canon as they saw fit.  And they used it.  So you get your marquee villians.  But not in the way you know them from pretty much every other Spider-Man thing out there.  To wit, you don’t get Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin.  You get Otto Octavius and Norman Osborn.  The game is clear that Spider-Man is a well established hero with 8 years of activity behind him by the time the game starts, but unlike in… basically anything else Spider-Man, Doc Ock and Green Goblin weren’t a part of any of that.  Instead, you get their normie guises, just the humans that they are.  Brilliant humans, powerful humans, but humans none the less.  Not the supervillians you know them to be.

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Do you get it?  Do you get what was just so fascinating to me?  You know things are going to go wrong there.  Origin stories are so common in superhero media, you know you’re stepping into one the moment you see either of these guys and they’re not already killing Gwen Stacy or marrying your aunt.  You know.  Spider-Man doesn’t.  That’s dramatic irony.  Thing is, the game itself gives you absolutely zero indication of this.  The game does not show you early on that they’re planning turns into supervillainy.  The only reason you know, the only reason that dramatic irony is there at all, is because of the rest of the IP.  You know they’ll be Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin and make Spider-Man’s life hell, but only because this game is adapted from a very well known property but given these weird twists here.

And yeah, this is a minor thing, but this is something that’s really unique to this type of work, an adaptation of a very well-known property.  You want to make something from scratch, you couldn’t pull this off.  And I’ve never seen it before.  They play with it nicely, too.  You know you’re seeing the origin stories there.  Except, only kind of.  They play this straight, but they also subvert it.  They take your expectations, that, again, you only have because you already know Spider-Man, and they use it to lead you in the wrong direction.  Again, that’s something that only this kind of creation can do, and, as far as I know, only Marvel’s Spider-Man has done.  And the storytelling nerd in me really wants to celebrate that.

Eyes on Duet

Man, it’s been a while.  My apologies for that.  I’ve been finding myself pretty over-committed to a whole bunch of things lately, and I just haven’t had the time for this blog.  Which hurts me to say.  In my line of work, you learn to recognize “I don’t have time for this” as being, whether the person realizes it or not, code for “this is not a priority for me”.  Which hurts.  I love this blog, I love getting my thoughts out for the small group of people who enjoy reading all this, and I love the whole sharing of ideas thing on this corner of the internet.  But unfortunately, there’s a bunch of higher priorities in my life right now that have been taking up most of the time that I’d been using to create content here.

Not all of it, however, hence why I’m getting this piece off.  Next in the prestigious ‘Eyes on’ series.  But this is a special one.  This isn’t just a game I’ve been playing for entertainment.  This is a game I’ve been playing for my health.

Seriously, I’ve been prescribed video games by physical therapist as part of treating this weird medical thing I’ve been dealing with that’s thrown my life for a loop.  Specifically, I’m supposed to be spending some time with optokinetics, rebalance the whole visual-motion system.  However, optokinetic videos are boring as hell, so it’s been recommended I spend time with video games.  Not just any game though.  Need games where everything on the screen is constantly moving.  We want nothing to be visually stable.  Which is exactly what brought me to Duet.

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Duet is one of those games that is all centered around an incredibly simple premise.  You control two balls fixed to opposite sides of a circle’s border.  You can rotate them around the circle, but you can’t otherwise change their position on the screen or relative to each other.  Blocks fall down from the top of the screen, and you have to rotate the balls to avoid them.

And…. that’s it.  Post over.  See you guys next time.

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Okay, there’s a bit more to say than that.  The game’s pretty good, even with as simple a premise at that one, at really mixing up the challenges there.  It starts out really basic, to get you accustomed to it.  But then you get the blocks that rotate, and you have to match your rotation to theirs.  Or the blocks that switch sides as they’re coming down at you.  Or the blocks that change their pace as they’re coming down.  It’s actually a rather challenging experience.  It’s one that can drive you into a sort of zen mode, where you’re not so much thinking about what you’re doing, just purely reacting.  The game puts too much pressure on you to allow you to think too much, and thinking’s not typically that useful to you anyways.  Much like it is in life.  In any case, it quickly gets to be rather challenging, requiring snap decisions, perfect timing, and smooth movements to get through a given challenge successfully.  The purest form of what most would consider a skill-based game in all.

It’s really great at instilling a tactile sense into the game.  Fittingly enough given what I’ve been using it for, you can almost physically feel what’s going on.  It has a driving thumping soundtrack combined with a background that pulses along with it.  When you screw up, your ball hits a block with a solid pop, leaving a stain on it as the whole structure streams back upwards to start raining down on you again. It all injects a very real sense of energy into the proceedings, and really serves to elevate it above its base, simple concept.

And… that’s it.  For real, this time.  It’s an incredibly simple game at it’s core, so I can’t really wax on too long about it.  But hey, if you, like me, now need to play video games for your health, Duet could be a good, interesting way of getting you what you need.

Eyes on Antihero

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So, in general terms, an antihero is a bad person who’s really a good person.  It turns out, an Antihero is also a video game.  Who knew?!

Me.  I knew.  Man, I rule.  And now you do too, because I’m telling you about it!

So, Antihero is a turn-based strategy game in which you run a thieves guild.  In said guild, you manage a team of units to help you yank, gank, and shank, all in the name of robbing the rich to give to… yourself.  You’re like half of Robin Hood, here.  To be honest, the ‘hero’ part of Antihero doesn’t really show up in the game.

Antihero is one of those games that’s simple in concept but really solid in execution.  It plays a lot like a board game, honestly.  Except it’s a video game.  It’s a video board game.  Yes.  You play in a semi-randomized section of one of the three types of Englands that show up in fiction (it’s the Sherlock Holmes-type, for reference) and they have you and a CPU or other player facing off against each other, racing to collect enough victory points to win the game before your opponent does.

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One of the things that I really like about Antihero is the way that your strategy has to evolve as you go along with the game.  Each game moves really quickly, and is over in about 15-20 minutes at most, yet there’s a really clear progression in strategy there.  In the early game, you might be able to make a really strong showing of it by denying your opponent access to resources and blocking them from scouting into your side of the board, while you snatch up and burglarize as much as you can.  If you just stick with that, though, you won’t be able to keep up as they start being able to move units through more territory and the places you’re stealing from run out of stuff to steal, so you’d better have built up a solid base of resource generation to keep you going by the mid-game.  And then in the end game, it becomes very difficult to keep units on the board but both sides should usually have enough to keep pumping more out, so it turns into a very aggressive war of attrition, and the guessing game of where to hit them hardest and where to place your own traps ends up ruling the day.

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There’s two major resources to secure; lanterns, which buy you upgrades, and coins, which buy you units.  Upgrades give you access to more units, improve on their capabilities, and boost your resource generation.  You’re not typically limited as far as how much you can get per turn, but every upgrade makes additional upgrades that turn more expenses, and buying units increases the price of other units of the same type.  Another layer of strategy there, sometimes you’re going to be best served by spending your wealth on a number of units, while other times you should spread them out between turns.

I particularly like the way units are designed to deal with the way strategies change throughout the course of the game.  To start with, you’ve got your master thief, who’s basically the queen of the chess board.  This guy/gal is the lynchpin of everything you’ve got going on.  They’re in charge of scouting, stabbing, and stealing.  One of the big strategic keys of the game is working out just when to upgrade their capabilities over the capabilities of the guild as a whole.  Your units can only operate in the locations you’ve scouted, burglarizing is your man source of resources in the early/mid game, and your attack capabilities without the master thief’s contributions has a strict application limit, so a lot of your momentum swings on how you use your master thief.  This unit gets the most upgrades, as well, and you’re able to increase the amount of moves you can make in a turn, the damage they do, the amount of coins you get activities, the types of places you can steal from, etc.  They’ll get progressively more powerful as the game goes on.  And, they retreat back to your hideout at the end of every turn, making it impossible for the opponent to attack them directly.

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Then you’ve got your urchins.  Urchins are pretty much the worker units of other strategy games.  Have them invade businesses, and they’ll get you benefits for it.  Usually that’ll be resources you get every turn, but sometimes it can be upgrades to your units, reduced costs, or even victory points.  They’ve usually only got one application, but it’s one that’s useful the whole game through.

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Your gangs are another one of your backbones.  These are the things that make people hurt.  Got some goons blocking your way?  Give them a good drubbing.  An assassination target?  Send the gangs after them.  They can kick urchins out of buildings, too, paving the way for you to take hold of it yourself.  You get to upgrade them every time they succeed at doing something, building up the damage they do, the amount of urchins they can remove at once, or the amount of money they make when they succeed at something.  These guys are kind of funny, so absolutely vital in the early game, but they end up dying by the droves in the late game, so it’s hard to build them up much then.  Even so, the ability to remove urchins from locations is vital to managing your opponent, and even when they can only do one before dying, it’s still the most cost-effective way of doing so.

Thugs can block off areas.  Neutral thugs will pop up randomly or around assassination targets over the course of the game, but if you want to keep your opponent from scouting out a certain area or reaching a certain resource, you can send a thug of your own to block it off.  They don’t have any offensive capabilities of their own, but you can make your opponent waste some moves in dealing with them, which is crazy effective in the early game.  As your opponent scouts more and more territory, their usefulness starts to wane, but you can always also add them to a gang to boost its health.

Saboteurs are one time use units that are pretty cheap.  They’re the only other unit other than the master thief that can scout, so if you need to extend your reach but the head honcho is busy, they can at least reveal some more street for your other units to prowl.  Their true utility, however, comes in the traps they lay.  Got a business where you just need to make sure your urchins are unmolested?  This guy can plant a bomb there.  It’ll last for a couple turns, and the first unit that tries to mess with that building will be stunned.  It makes the master thief lose all their remaining moves, and it leaves gangs and truant officers helpless in the streets, waiting to be picked off, all while your happy urchins are still there, unfettered.

And then you have truant officers and assassins.  Both one time use units, the best at what they do.  Both the most expensive units available.  Truant officers will roll up, and in the creepiest way possible, remove all the urchins from a building.  Assassins will strike for a whopping six damage, more than any other unit in the game and enough to slay almost anything except for the later assassination targets, before vanishing.  Both are only available by the time you reach the late game, and the economy on them isn’t great, as given enough time you could have a gang do the same work for much less cost, but smart use of them can really turn the tide for you.

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To win the game, you usually need to secure six victory points.  There’s a bunch of ways to do that, but there’s three that’s available on every map.  You can spend lanterns on bribing someone to get a victory point, although the cost of doing so increases each time you do.  You can fulfill contracts for assassination, taking out random targets with more health than you typically have available at that point, although again, the amount of health they have will increase every time one of them falls.  And you can fill a church with urchins, learning enough from confessions to secure blackmail, but this is the only type of victory point you can lose, so you’ll have to defend those urchins until the game is won.  Scenarios may also present you with other means of scoring victory points, such as by stealing a ship’s cargo, sneaking into a masquerade, or overcoming a palaces security and burglarizing its jewels.

The game has a campaign mode that’ll take you through all of these, as it tells the story of master thief Lightfinger as he ousts all the other thieves guilds from NOT LONDON and establishes his control over the city.  It also has an exhibition mode that I spent a fair bit of time in, and a multiplayer mode that might mean something to me if I ever played these things with anyone else.

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All in all, I want to call back to what I said earlier.  It’s a really simple concept with a very solid execution.  I had a lot of fun with it.  There’s not a whole lot of meat there, though.  The campaign mode will take you maybe 3 hours, and when you’re done with that, you’ve seen pretty much all the game has.  Short games don’t bother me at all, and it’s really good for a quick bit of fun, but if you’re expecting something with staying power, this is not it.  It is really satisfying to get a good strategy going, and although you will probably use the same basic model throughout, the different scenarios and actions of your enemies will require a fair bit of variation to that.  It’s good for my thinking cap, is what I’m saying.

Being the Butt of the Joke: The Bard’s Tale

Humor is not always nice to everyone.  Humor has to be subversive in some way to find its mark.  It has to go against expectations, explicit or implied.  And targeted humor goes against the expectation that we’re all good to each other, which, as it turns out, is a pretty core one in this whole human journey we’re on.  Because we’re all good people.  So yeah, making fun of people is one of the more effective ways to get a chuckle going.  Because we’re all bad people.  Making fun of people in real life, when they’re not in on the joke, is kind of a crappy thing to do.  Making fun of fictional people, though, what’s the harm in that?

Aside from making you feel bad for the guy you’re probably not supposed to feel bad for, normally, not much.  Video games bring a new dimension to that, though.  That guy, everyone’s butt monkey, the target of every joke even though he’s not actually all that bad?  What if that was you?

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At least, that’s what I ran across in my playthrough of The Bard’s Tale.  I was going to go for a review, as I’ve been doing around here, but the game’s not enough to make for an interesting review.  “Competent but kind of bad” pretty much sums it up.  The only really notable point is the game’s humor.  It has a lot of it.  It’s in an odd Scottish style, which I wouldn’t have known was a thing before playing it, that may not land with a lot of people, but it does make the humor unique, at least.  A lot of it is at the expense of the titular Bard.  Which, ok, sure, he’s not a good person.  He could use a good few pokes at him.  Thing is, though, he’s also you.

And that leaves me curious for how all these jokes should be landing.  It’s not the only game to be leaving the PC with the occasional thrust.  It sure felt quite a bit different when it’s just so constant, however.  The Bard, and by extension, you, never seems to catch a break.  Even the people who are happy to see you there usually have some jibe in place that the game pulls on you.  And sometimes that has gameplay implications, like when you’re told to find a character and you end up finding 5 with the same name and have to go between them all multiple times over before getting to the next plot point, or when you get to the end of a big old monster sprawl to rescue someone that can point you to the incredibly obvious place you need to go that’s right next to him, but the Bard can’t understand his brogue so you have to spend around 15 minutes backtracking and re-backtracking to bring someone there who could understand him and tell you to just go in the glowing portal thing.  Really, when it gets to the point the jokes are dragging out the gameplay, the joke’s not on the character.  The joke’s on you.

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In any case, for a rather unremarkable game, this is the facet that stuck out at me.  It’s pretty common to have one of those characters in a work.  The perennial lovable loser.  The butt monkey.  The guy for whom luck goes sour in the most hilarious of ways.  And yeah, you can make that work.  Video games play by different rules, though, and no matter who the protagonist is, there’s going to be parts of you there just by virtue of them being your avatar to this world.  You’re going to sympathize with them more.  And good natured ribbing is one thing, but when you’re the butt of every joke and it never lets up, well, it’s not fun to have the whole world laughing at your expense.  That’s an additional level you wouldn’t find in most media, but it’s right front and center in games.

That said, as always with humor, it’s a different matter when it hits right.  A few of the jokes, like when the Bard joins in on a tavern jam session and ends up inadvertantly playing in a song that is insulting him all over the place for accidently setting a doomsday demon free earlier in the game, that was funny no matter how close to home it was.

Mumbling about Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Man, you remember the Wii?  I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but for all the flak the Wii got for “having no games”, it sure had a hell of a lot of good games.  In a lot of ways, I feel the Wii got everything that the indie games market is covering now, before indie games even had a hope of making it.  In the face of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 pushing HD graphics and high processing power, but correspondingly high development costs, the Wii offered a more modest rate of performance at a much cheaper, and correspondingly less risky, development price.  Games didn’t port well to and from the Wii and you didn’t see it’s larger install base buying as many games as the other consoles, so it didn’t see that many AAA releases.  But established companies shooting out more experimental and creative secondary-level games?  That it had in droves.  And lots of them were really good.  At this point, my Wii library is pretty comparible in size to that of its competitors, and I find myself really glad for that.

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Case in point, there’s Muramasa: the Demon Blade.  Oozing art style, combat that’s at the same time buttery smooth and awkward, a game that’s not trying to make the huge statement of its AAA counterparts and is just there to be fun.  That last part is really representative of the Wii’s output for me.  How did it play out in this case?  Let’s find out!

Muramasa is made by Vanillaware, who at this point were notable for Odin Sphere and later because well-known for their beat-em-up Dragon’s Crown.  It’s a side-scrolling action game where you play as one of two characters roaming around beautifully drawn depictions of the various areas of feudal Japan, as you slay your enemies, collect the Demon Blades, and…. do things to get stuff done.  There’s a plot, but frankly, it really doesn’t matter.

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And yeah, it being Vanillaware, the art is the most prominent part of this piece.  And it is great.  Everything is lavishly hand-drawn, incorporating real-world art techniques from feudal Japan in a way that makes things look completely fitting to the setting even as they’re stunningly gorgeous.  Most of it looks even better in motion.  Being hand-painted, animations are a little limited, and some of them do look a little janky, but for the most part, they really breathe life into these characters and locales.

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The bosses are probably visually the best part.  If you’ve been playing video games for a while, chances are you’ve probably been pretty well exposed to lots of classical Japanese culture and mythology.  Muramasa draws from that well pretty heavily, but doesn’t just add art to it, it’s often dropping some really interesting twists on the classical mythology as well.  Inugami goes from classical mythology of being a dog poltergeist to the version here of being a blasted scary being with rows of teeth that never end.  Raijin keeps all they fierceness and aggression he’s had in classical mythology, but he’s in the form of a muscular battle woman here.  I found it interesting, seeing the unusual takes on familiar features all over the place.

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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.