The Forgotten Ones

Uh-oh… The dunce is back.

This household is now living a quiet era of post-excellence. After Persona 5 left such a wholesome, indelible impression, it will probably take a bit more time for any other game to inspire again. The best I’ve managed is to return to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice, even if back in March it wasn’t particularly inspiring either. Still, I totally forgot that I had also bought its separate DLC episode, which provided closer to six hours of at least distant echoes of the series’ better early days.

It’s another murder case, of course, charging a fresh bride who also claims to be able to travel through time. Despite such a wild premise, this turns out to be an ordinary case in which logical thinking debunks the impossible. It’s a delightful change of pace in comparison to the supernatural gimmicks of the main game. It’s also a nice blast to the past as the case is being prosecuted by good old Miles Edgeworth. Even Larry Butz, the lively childhood friend of our attorneys who was last seen in the original game trilogy makes a comeback, confounding the case in his typical fashion.

Even if this sixth Spirit of Justice case is a minor step towards the better, it’s still only semi-entertaining fan service at best. The humor suffers from many characters acting a bit too unrestrained for their own good, and the asinine “…………” lines that were seriously overused in the main game make an unwelcome return. Also, those paying attention will probably figure out some of the surprises way too early, which makes addressing the wrong assumptions a bit monotonous to follow. Especially after such a long break from the main game, the episode was still decent enough to play through but it failed to leave any kind of lasting impression. A solid case but also one that manages to emphasize just how stale this once glorious series has gotten.

Meh… Meh… Meh…

While trying to find that next game that would steal my heart, I’ve sampled a bunch without bumping into anything remarkable. There was a couple month’s worth of PlayStation Plus freebies but none (of the ones that were new to me) managed to engage. As for physical releases, Little Nightmares turned out to be a gloomy Limbo clone in which a mute girl dressed in a yellow raincoat 2D-leaps her way through distressing areas while dying in many gruesome ways. I managed to stay interested for about 15 minutes, after which she plummeted into a pit of gigantic leeches that devoured her over and over again. Too macabre and depressing to be enjoyed right now, so it shall return to the backlog.

The indie darling Stardew Valley, in turn, is all about colorful and jolly everyday life in a tiny rural town. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, it provides plenty of activities from farming and fishing to slaying monsters in mines and befriending other townsfolk. After 11 hours, however, I realized that it’s one of those incredibly repetitious games that make use of pathetically small incentives to lengthen the overall experience into a marathon of hundreds of meaningless hours. It is ambitious, sure, but I’ve played enough similar games to know that everything will eventually lead to just growing tired of it all. Could be fun but not right now.

My foray into AAA didn’t go much better. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a hauntingly beautiful third-person post-apocalyptic sandbox full of robotic animals and humans, who have regressed into spear and bow wielding hunter-gatherers. Even if the science fiction overtones work wondrously and the game skillfully combines Witcher, Uncharted, and Tomb Raider, it somehow failed to captivate. I guess the first five hours just had too many similarly looking NPCs spouting mythical nonsense or something. There’s plenty of potential, though, so this one (too) certainly deserves another go when the time is right.

Nakama Power

Making new acquaintances in Akihabara

Halfway down this week I would never have believed just how big Persona 5 can be. Last time I expected to be on the final straight and wondered why the adversary I thought to be the final boss didn’t really exude an aura of epicness that they often tend to do. It ended up being no wonder at all, since after that the game kicked into serious high gear, featuring massive events and growing into a crescendo that almost felt ridiculous yet absolutely awesome. The last 15 hours were full of drama, suspense, a fantastic (actual) final boss, and an epilogue beautiful enough to get even the eyes of this cranky codger a little misty. Damn I’m going to miss these rascals!

At that point, I had already been playing for 77 hours. Even following a walkthrough, I managed to mess up my in-game schedule and miss out on some juicy tidbits here and there. Thus, there was no choice but to begin anew. Even if NG+ features a hidden boss, one new Persona, and a chance to get romantic with someone else from a selection of nine characters, that’s pretty much all there is. Thankfully money, personas, and social skills from the first playthrough carried over, so round two was mostly just fast-forwarding already seen scenes, enjoying plenty of extra time to do things, and completing a full 191 Persona compendium. The platinum trophy unlocked at 112 hours and I’m now dead tired but happy. Persona 5 would be even better if it allowed everything to be experienced in one go but the rerun was still fairly enjoyable.

Just like with its predecessor, the most memorable thing about Persona 5 is its sincerity and warmth. This is mostly thanks to the main characters who are more just everyday youngsters than they are actual super heroes (aside from the talking cat, Morgana, of course). The character chemistry is exemplary, and the game usually steers well clear of implausible conflict scenarios just for the sake of drama The Phantom Thieves are simply a bunch of extremely good friends who get along exceptionally well, overcoming all hardships as a team. This good vibe carries over to the player, too. I rarely get emotionally attached to game characters but this gang turned out to be people I came to genuinely care about and root for.

If anything is at fault with Persona 5, it’s because of its publisher. On PS4, it’s delightfully easy to grab screenshots and video clips for your own amusement, as long as the game allows it. Most of them do. Atlus, however, abhors spoiling jerks so much that it often restricts these features. On Utawarerumono, capturing content was disabled after the first 15 hours and on Persona 5, that happens after five minutes. Their products and their rules, sure, but it’s still a pretty drastic measure, especially as it can be circumvented with an ordinary capture card. The policy is more akin to taking a holiday abroad but having to leave your camera at the customs.

Still, it’s hard to be angry at Atlus. Persona 5 is a masterpiece that easily exceeded all expectations. It has to be a pretty darn impressive release to top this one by the end of the year!

The Summer of 20XX

Ryuji, the protagonist, and Ann

Blessed be both free time and Persona 5! The exchange year of our protagonist began in April. Now, after more than 60 hours played, I’m enjoying the last few days of November. What has already been a most emotional and action-packed roller coaster ride just keeps on getting wilder! With yet three more members, the Phantom Thieves have risen to fame, fallen from grace, experienced surprises and plot twists of all kinds, and the story is currently scorching at a hundred miles per hour on a straight that seems to lead towards the finishing line. There’s still plenty to do but the feeling that this might be my game of the year just keeps on growing stronger.

Only a handful of games manage to be this captivating, and Persona 5 manages to excel on multiple fronts at that. As I’ve already pointed out a couple of times, it’s a pinnacle of pure style. Its visuals are an exhilarating explosion of color, and absolutely everything from menus and loading screens to dialogue windows and character close-up shots have been designed with utmost care and originality. The wonderful looks are complemented by an equally wonderful soundtrack, which might not feature that many songs, but which provides appropriate aural bliss for every occasion; bass-heavy jazz and lounge music for the more relaxed scenes, wailing electric guitars for the thrilling boss fights.

Voice acting is particularly brilliant. The previous game featured a forced dub which which wasn’t bad as such but seriously subtracted from the ambiance of an otherwise so fundamentally Japanese experience. This time around Atlus was considerate enough to remember us purists, too, releasing the original audio as a free piece of DLC. Granted, when I downloaded it from the European PSN store, it cryptically stated just “Cannot find the application.” The reason for this was my physical copy imported from North America, and the “simple” solution was to create a new US account and use that to download the same DLC from the PSN store across the pond. Oh, how easy and convenient this digital future can be. Still, well worth the hassle as there’s no better audio than original audio!

Most importantly, Persona 5 possesses that ever-so-essential soul. The charm of our mystical hero is like a magnet, drawing in not just other main characters but several NPCs as well. Everyone has been written a meaningful side-story that has been split into more than ten scenarios. The game has plenty of humor to enjoy, but it can also be extremely touching and does not shy away from such controversial subjects as depression, suicide, arranged marriages, social anxiety, bullying, etc. All of this takes place during a delightfully authentic school year that features everything essential from grueling exam weeks to school trips, culture festivals, and intolerably humid summer holidays. The game does a fantastic job combining a supernatural adventure with everyday life, and it’s a recipe that is just plain stellar!

As for the minor annoyances mentioned last time, they’re really rather inconsequential. If fighting through the dungeons feels too challenging, there’s always a Safe difficulty mode that gives out such ridiculous amounts of money and experience that a game over is pretty much impossible. As for time management, it’s just a matter of consulting the internet (e.g. KillScottKill’s nifty spoiler-free walkthrough) on what to do at any given free moment. Sure, these are extremely cheap ways to experience the game but then again, they are polite nods towards those who either can’t or don’t want to sink triple or quadruple digit hours into a single game. Then again, with or without training wheels, the game simply has so much to see and do that NG+ is pretty much a given once the end credits have rolled. For now, I’m off to reach them!

Let Speed Gaming Commence!

If effective time management is challenging in Persona 5, it’s not particularly easy for a man on vacation either. As much as I now possess valuable time to prune my backlog, some of it has to be spent admiring the gaming of others. In less than two hours, Games Done Quick will kick off its annual summer gaming potpourri, siccing dozens of skilled enthusiasts to play through dozens of games as quickly as humanly possible for charity. The event, broadcast live, will go on around the clock for the entire next week, and judging by its schedule, it once again features a most pleasant selection of classics and obscurities both new and retro. Even if my patience (let alone skills) would never be enough to analyze individual games thoroughly enough to be able to beat them with minute precision, I still bow deeply to all participants; impressive dedication and the best kind of summery entertainment a gamer can hope for!

Youth Revolution

About to punish a pixie

After more than 25 hours, Persona 5 just keeps on getting better! Having named their group the Phantom Thieves, the upbeat Shujin high schoolers have already managed to get three treacherous adults to confess their crimes. While at it, this elusive group has also gotten two new members, and is starting to draw the attention of both the media and the police. While it’s nice to be famous, some are still on the fence about such vigilantism. Thus, our heroes have no choice but to up the ante and try to win over public support by exposing grim secrets of increasingly more famous and dangerous individuals.

Catching these wrongdoers is not a particularly straightforward process. To find a suitable target, the Phantoms need to figure out not just their name and location, but also the nature of the place that lurks within their subconscious. Once these are known, the team can enter said subconscious to work their way towards the desire hidden deep within its depths. To stand in their way are plenty of Persona demons to be bested in turn-based battles. They could be a real threat, but thankfully each team member has awoken a Persona of their own, and the protagonist can actually possess several of them. Each Persona has its own skills, strengths, and weaknesses, so combat requires a constant keen tactical eye to take the best advantage of them. If a Persona has been given a thorough thrashing, it can sometimes be recruited into the arsenal of the main character, or extorted for extra cash or items. Of course, the same applies the other way around, so a careless player can end up in a hostage negotiation about the life of his friend.

Even if the battle system is heavenly versatile and full of depth, it suffers from rather unbalanced economics. Even on easy difficulty, individual encounters yield only pitiful amounts of money. Just a single weapon or a piece of gear for a single character is often a notable investment that has to be thought through long and hard. Even more annoying is the weakness and rarity of health items. Especially magic points needed to invoke persona skills are nigh on impossible to restore, because those recovery items are ridiculously rare and might not even restore enough points for a single use of a single skill. Resorting to melee attacks only is hardly an option, so the most common reason to retreat from a dungeon back into the real world is running out of skill points to fight efficiently.

Slow grinding wouldn’t be a problem as such, but just like in previous Persona games, time is also an extremely finite resource. There’s a deadline for conquering each parallel world, and while it is often generous on its own, enjoying adolescence to its fullest takes plenty of time, too. Each day only has a couple of slots that can be used as the player sees fit. As well as challenging the main story dungeons, there’s plenty of relationships to deepen, five different personal attributes to improve, several part-time jobs to consider for additional income, etc. There’s always so many ways to spend free time that it’s pretty much impossible to experience absolutely everything in a single playthrough. Since this adventure will probably take well over 80 hours to begin with, such blatant dependence on an eventual NG+ is actually pretty disheartening.

Still, it’s quite possible to forgive (or even circumvent) all these apparent defects as the Phantoms stylishly steal the hearts of not just the bad guys but the player, too. More about that not until the next status update, as right now the pull back into this wondrous virtual Tokyo is just too strong to resist.