Bliss in the Making

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Now that my summer vacation is in full swing and provides nothing but heavenly free time, I’m also hopping on the bandwagon that sings praises to one of the most notable releases of this year. For some, Persona 5 is the zenith to the wait of almost a decade whereas I fell in love with this JRPG/teen life hybrid not until last year, courtesy of Persona 4 Golden. That one was hands down my Game of the Year 2016, so it took quite a bit of willpower to not jump into this latest entry until being able to gorge it pretty much 24/7.

The player is a small town teenager who gets into trouble merely by defending a helpless woman from the advances of a drunken boor. Unfortunately that schmuck not only gets hurt in the process but also carries enough influence to land the involuntary hero a criminal record, an expulsion from his school, and a year of probation to be spent somewhere else. Fair or not, the youngster is sent to Tokyo. There, at Shujin Academy, he’s supposed to start a new life, even if rumors of his supposed delinquency are already spreading like wildfire.

It’s not going to be dull, everyday life, though, as a mysterious mobile application leads our hero and his new classmates – the hot-headed troublemaker Ryuji Sakamoto and allegedly immoral beauty Ann Takamaki – into a strange parallel world full of demons known as personas. There, they are met by a talking cat, Morgana, who gets these understandably rather confused teens up to speed. These strange worlds are the dark manifestations of the subconsciousness’ of deranged individuals; playgrounds for their sick omnipotence, if you will. The only way to stop such narcissistic psychopaths in real life is to steal the hidden desires within their hearts. Thus, the three youngsters and one talking cat have no choice but to get absorbed in some genuine hands-down psychotherapy. Of course, kicking demon butt is one thing but there’s also the fleeting days of youth in a bustling metropolis that need to be enjoyed to the max.

As weird as that might sound, it should be more than a familiar premise for long-term fans of the series. Since my own journey has barely begun and will most certainly lead to multiple blog entries, I’ll wrap up this first one just stating the obvious: yes, it’s a glorious and utterly stylish game, yes, it feels like the best Persona ever made, and yes, it carries more than a hint of that elusive Game of the Year fragrance. Still, I think I need a few more hours to constitute a slightly more objective perspective into what makes it tick and what does not. Nevertheless, it sure is some damn good stuff!

To Be Continued…

Haku’s self preservation skills failing yet again

I guess I should have known that the very second I claim Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception not to be a harem adventure, Haku’s troupe is complemented by a couple of unabashed harem beauties. Thankfully Haku is such a genuine gentleman (no, he really is!) that the adventure still managed to continue in a fairly chaste manner. After almost 30 hours of lull, the story finally caught wind in its sails. That long sought gust was a little too rowdy, though, as the next 12 hours featured not just more characters but also a couple of sizable border wars and plenty of political scheming. As far as pacing goes, Utawarerumono is all over the place. It first spends a ludicrous amount of time just lollygagging before putting the pedal to the metal with loads of epic moments conveyed in rudimentary 3D scenes that require plenty of forgiving imagination to work out.

In a way, the game is still hard to put into words as even after those 42 hours, I’ve only experienced the first half of the adventure. After kicking into high gear, the game more or less just ends, leaving behind a number of (partly painfully asinine) cliffhangers for Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth to follow up on come September. I should be a little annoyed with this twosome as it really feels like just trimming excess fat would’ve made it possible to tell the whole story in a single, more refined manner. Still, can’t say for sure until experiencing the other half, so I guess I have to give Mask of Deception a hall pass for now. Maybe its follow-up will focus on the cavalcade of characters that now felt way too numerous and largely underutilized.

To end on a slightly brighter note, I still admit that I’m intrigued by the fates of Haku and Kuon. Also, the frequency of the strategic battles towards the end almost felt normal at times. Big thumbs up for the final battle in particular, in which damage both given and taken was just plain brutal. While this might be my last endeavor into Japanese RPG stories cheekily split into multiple games, I guess my wallet still wishes to have an audience with Mask of Truth.

Lazy Summer Days

Spoilsport…

Thanks to another leisurely weekend, I’ve managed to make progress in Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception. Its characters seem to be spending equally leisurely time themselves. What first seemed like a travel story has now rooted itself deeply in the capital of the empire of Yamato. There, Haku and his gang are doing occasional odd jobs while mostly concentrating on eating, boozing, shopping, and cooking. Their troupe has increased in size, welcoming aboard Nekone, the mercenary Ukon’s awfully tsundere little sister, as well as a couple more royals from the neighboring countries; a scatterbrained and romance-hungry princess Atuy, as well as a young and virtuous prince Kiwru. With a couple of dozen side characters thrown in for good measure, the cast is already more than adequate, and that’s putting it mildly.

At this particular moment, my biggest gripe with Utawarerumono is the way it meanders aimlessly. Even after 22 hours played, there has been preciously little of relevance going on, apart from a continuous barrage of new characters being introduced. The player is stingily given brief, enigmatic glimpses into the veiled pasts of both Kuon and Haku, but as for the plot, it’s still hiding somewhere. There are just tons of small, disconnected scenes about the everyday fuss of living in a big city. They’re a good source of some excellent, unabashed character chemistry, and can occasionally be even a little touching. Still, the storytelling is currently like a sailboat stuck in a dead calm. I’m mostly just waiting for stuff to start happening.

The game’s turn-based skirmishes, fought on checkered isometric maps, have been brief and exceptionally rare. They only lasts for maybe 5-10 minutes, and so far there have been eight of them. Of those, most have been designed to give the player such a huge advantage from the very beginning that there’s barely any need for any kind of strategic thinking. If you can be bothered to check how far the enemy units can move and attack on their turn, it’s a piece of cake to bait them into individual, easily toppled targets. There are little gimmicks such as being able to slightly increase or decrease damage with a well-timed button press right before a blow lands, but they do very little to improve what is an extremely crude and barebones battle system. Battles won can be replayed in free battle mode but since the experience reward of doing so is negligible, it’s not really worth it. Besides, there never seems to be any real need to grind, anyway.

As awkward as all this might sound, Utawarerumono isn’t still a lost cause at all. Even if it’s easy and 95% passive, its characters and their interplay continue to work. I’m especially pleased to see that even if Haku is surrounded by several beautiful maidens, the game isn’t a tired old harem adventure. There’s plenty of love in the air, sure, but when pretty much everyone has their own quirks and persons of interest, even the romantic comedy feels fresh and versatile. A much better approach than, say, having everybody going after the protagonist. I’m probably close to the halfway point, so if only the story would kindly start moving soon, this could still become quite a ride.

E-Threesome

Either I need a vacation or I’m just getting old (or most likely a bit of both) but this year’s E3 galloped past without leaving much of an impression. For the first time in years, I skipped the live press conferences of the Big Three and didn’t even bother to watch them afterwards. Even if that was a subconscious decision, the overall feedback seems to support it; the traditional big companies showed off their traditional big stuff, and their showpieces seemed vaguely nice but not really anything more than that.

Still, digging around the outskirts of the big budget AAA swamp wasn’t a complete waste of time, given that E3 was still courteous enough to provide something for us pathetic hipster farts, too. First, there was Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom which finally got a solid release November release date. I’m not particularly thrilled that the children of the first game got replaced with teen protagonists but since Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, back in its day, was one pretty damn solid JRPG, I’m pre-ordering its sequel the very second it becomes available. The dub in the trailer isn’t particularly impressive but here’s hoping the original audio will be included.

The second place of this year’s E3 goes to Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. The first Life Is Strange readily challenged (the sometimes equally impressive) Telltale for the crown of emotion- and story-driven adventures, and if there’s more to be experienced then I’m first in the line. Sure, it’s still an episodic adventure split into three parts, so I’ll wait until they’re all out and dressed into a physical form but I’m very much in the line nonetheless. Before the Storm kicks off at the end of August this year, so with a bit of luck it’s going to be one awfully wonderful journey by early 2018.

For now, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim doesn’t even have a western release date (not even a Japanese one for that matter) but since its trailer has been localized, we’ll probably get to enjoy this Vanillaware latest eventually. Seems like yet another harrowingly beautiful 2D action-adventure but as it’s a recipe that has worked before, I have no qualms supporting it further.

Passive Strategy

Hoodlum about to get a face full of chocob… birdie!

If stereotypes were a bit too much yesterday, they’ve been quite wonderful today. If a game is a JRPG that stars a young protagonist who has lost his memories then surely it should be the dullest and most unambitious of experiences ever? Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception begs to differ, though, skillfully showing just how much can be salvaged with an excellent cast of characters and loads of heartfelt humor. To be exact, there are two protagonists, given that the amnesia-ridden youngster who is lost on the snowy mountains of the empire of Yamato is rescued by Kuon, a lone and upbeat female adventurer well-versed in medicine. She’s also remarkably stubborn, unanimously deciding that the boy’s name shall be Haku, and should he occasionally feel like nothing more than a pet in training, it’s just because everyone in Yamato has furry ears and a fluffy tail whereas Haku does not.

Even if Haku is exceptionally weak in this strange new world, he quickly shows skills in mathematics, engineering, and unparalleled laziness. Overall, he seems pretty much useless but for reasons unknown, Kuon still wants to look over him. If manual labor at the nearby village isn’t cutting it then perhaps the capital of the empire would have a job for someone with not much brawn but plenty of brain. Since the game is essentially a travel story, it doesn’t take long for the duo to meet up with other travelers, such as the easygoing captain of a mercenary squad, Ukon, his boozy aristocrat mage, Maroro, and a timid, bona fide princess of a neighboring nation, Rulutieh.

At least for now, Utawarerumono is a JRPG in name only. In theory, it’s an isometric, turn-based strategy RPG in which each unit gets a turn to move and act based on their agility. This part of the game seems incredibly puny and streamlined to the max. There are hit points, sure, but not really much anything else. Skirmishes won are rewarded with experience points that grant new skills, as well as random trinkets that can be equipped to buff various stats, but that’s it. There are no magic points, shops, weapons, or items whatsoever. It’s not that big a deal, anyway, considering that after almost seven hours, there has been actual playable content for maybe half an hour or so. In reality, Utawarerumono is a purebred visual novel.

Those hours haven’t been wasted time at all, though. As some weird kind of semi-anime, Utawarerumono works wonders. It might be preciously little else than pretty backgrounds housing still character portraits going through their fully voice-acted lines, but against all odds that is actually enough. This is partly thanks to the delightfully complacent Kuon but especially Haku, who is not just another mute reject of a hero but a genuinely written character who constantly shares his mind both aloud and in his thoughts. If you switch on auto mode, all the cutscenes (in this case main scenes) can be enjoyed without pressing a button. Just put down the controller and enjoy an excellent comedy adventure with a bit of ecchi thrown in for good measure.

I’m sure some might point out that if a game isn’t really a game then why couldn’t it have been anime from the get-go? Simply put, if my session today had been split into anime episodes, there would already have been around 20 of them while this adventure is more or less just getting started. Utawarerumono has taken a peculiar approach but as it’s an entertaining one, I’m not complaining!

Aria of No Soul

Whee! I’m done! Now let’s quickly get out of here!

If this wasn’t much of a week then Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Anniversary at least follows suit. Even if it was still a cautiously entertaining adventure just last weekend, its latter half stumbled on so many clichés that it would have needed to be a self-conscious parody rather than a solemn action-adventure to work. It’s a real shame, too, considering that tech-wise Rise of the Tomb Raider is still nigh on impeccable. Both the overall imagery of the game as well as the detail of its heroine’s animation are absolutely spot on. When Lara admires the exceptionally gorgeous views, or quickly dries her ponytail after a quick swim, those are the moments when the player probably feels most in sync with the character. Movement is fluent, bullets fly true, and the environment is discreetly graceful at pointing out ledges that can be grabbed, vertical surfaces that allow an additional step, or cliffsides that can be leaped onto with a couple of climbing axes.

Even if the staff of Crystal Dynamics seem to be on the level from a technical perspective, the other aspects making up a game are a bit woeful. Two religious extremities – one strong but evil, the other weak but good – vying over an ancient secret really is a piss-poor motif to begin with, but it’s ten times worse approached seriously. Sure, Indiana Jones fights Nazis and Nathan Drake has his own treasure hunts, but at least those two know how to laugh at themselves. Lara does not laugh. Even if Rise of the Tomb Raider no longer treats its heroine in such a repulsive and sadistic manner than its predecessor (Tomb Raider of 2013), there’s still not even an iota of British charm present, as much as a treasure trove that would be. No one ever smiles, except maybe by accident, and when awfully stereotypical characters constantly end up in awfully stereotypical situations while spouting lines like “You do what you must”, or when Lara is sitting at a campfire, having a personal crisis of how awful it is for the good in this world to witness death and violence… It’s just plain cringe-worthy.

As for gameplay, it has similar problems. Whenever Lara can choose a stealthy approach, picking off her adversaries one by one from the shadows, the game shines at its brightest. To counter these occasions, however, there are tons of moments when you’re swarmed by alarmed bad guys and left with no option but to survive. At times, an endless rain of nades would put even Call of Duty in shame, and when all else fails there’s always the tired old cliché of slow but heavily armored baddies to fall back to. Rise of the Tomb Raider never finds a good balance between these two extremes. It’s either an enjoyable stealth encounter or a shockingly loud and chaotic skirmish but rarely ever anything in between. Towards the end, all gauges are turned up to eleven and everything is so flashy it no longer even matters anymore. Just a ridiculous barrage of unnecessarily dramatic explosions and close calls that are there only for their own sake (incidentally something that hampered the previous game, too).

I beat the game in 20 hours, including one of its story-driven DLCs, which was pretty much more of the same but with a hugely original twist of added chaos via psychedelic hallucinations. Oh FFS, game designers, get your act together already. If this is AAA, I’m happy to stick to the sidelines.

Auspicious second-stringers

Speaking of which, even if this time of year doesn’t sport that many new releases, a couple still caught my attention. Little Nightmares is, apparently, some sort of a dark puzzle-platformer that probably would’ve flown right past my radar without plenty of positive hearsay. As for Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, it’s something I’ve briefly covered already, and really a game I’m really looking forward to. Now if only I could get that one remarkably time-consuming and, at times, aggravating DS puzzle game done and dusted… If anything, I’m thankful of not having to cover these as work.