Let’s Play Home(town)

The wonders of modern fantasy science!

Since I’m fashionably late to most games, it wasn’t until now that I got enthralled by Dragon Quest Builders. This Square Enix’s jovial Minecraft for (Japanese) role-playing fans has been providing constructive entertainment for 30 or so hours, and despite a multitude of problems, it’s absolutely endearing. Especially for us imaginatively challenged, its best feature is a story. It’s not much of a story but it’s still something that counts. The evil Dragonlord rules the world with his army of monsters, and mankind has regressed into nothing but dolts, incapable of constructing anything at all. Thankfully there’s a pure in heart hero (or heroine) who is given a holy task to step up to the powers of darkness. So, it’s time to erect a Banner of Hope at the ruins of a nearby town and build it back to its glory. The first recipes are handed out by a lone girl wandering in, and you pretty much have nothing but dirt, branches and leaves to work with. Still, small feats go a long way and as the population of your new home slowly rises, so does the variety of ingredients at your disposal. After only a few hours, it’s already all about cooking stations, rock walls, watchtowers, ramparts, steel broadswords, and more!

The simplest of recipes is a room, which is essentially just a space surrounded by walls two cubes high, a door, and a source of light. With suitable interior design these rooms turn into, say, an inn, a restaurant, or a workshop. Unfortunately the Banner of Hope only provides enough radiance for an area that is barely big enough to house maybe half a dozen structures, or so. Still, time sure flies by when fine-tuning even those. There’s never a dull moment, given that new residents always provide something new to investigate or construct. Every now and then you also have to defend your base from the Dragonlord’s minions.

Just when the whole town building and material gathering trips are at their finest, Dragon Quest Builders suffers its first strike. A big and awfully mean boss appears, likely laying waste to most of your accomplishments. After it has been bested and the damages perhaps repaired, a teleport appears in the horizon. It whisks you off to the next chapter, and while the scenery changes and there are plenty of new materials to gather, you’re effectively bumped back to square one. Not fun. Granted, completing the first chapter also unlocks Terra Incognita, a vast free area dedicated to nothing but constructing, but sadly it lacks the story aspect. As much as starting from the scratch can be vexing, it doesn’t take long for things to get obsessive again, and so the last moments of every chapter are just as rewarding as in the first one. The game has four such scenarios, and I’m now done with the first three. Then again, they all come with five optional challenges that aren’t revealed until the chapter has been completed, so replay value is high. This even more so, as completing those challenges will add content to the Terra Incognita mode.

The second strike comes from said challenges. One of them is always a speedrun, which requires you to complete the chapter swiftly. If it was already a bummer that you have to leave everything behind, it’s even more stressful to do it all over again within a rather strict time limit. I haven’t played Minecraft but it’s (supposedly) relaxed building of stuff that can eventually reach epic proportions. The story mode of Dragon Quest Builders seems like an antithesis of sorts; limited, fleeting, and even something to be optimized in a hurry. It’s almost like a tutorial that lasts for dozens of hours until Terra Incognita can be enjoyed to its fullest. Do I have the energy to appreciate that after a lengthy playthrough? Well, the game is still addictive as hell, so onward to the final chapter!

Tokyo Mended, All Is Well

Taking a break from saving the world

Gigants have been bested not just in Tokyo but around the world as well. As it turned out, Ray Gigant wasn’t just an Ichiya Amakaze parade. As the story progressed, a couple of other Yorigami adopters were eventually located in England and the Caribbean. I kind of wish they weren’t, though, as the heroes were a remarkably dysfunctional bunch of people. The trio of a dunce, a psychopath, and a bimbo only interacted by bickering, ragging, and wallowing in self-pity, on top of which they all had a nearly identical story segment. After slaying a few Gigants, everything starts to go horribly wrong and someone dies. As the characters are repulsive and hardly ever get along, there’s very little drama even the first time around, let alone third.

Things didn’t get much better with dungeon crawling. The initial uncluttered mazes were eventually replaced with a jumble of hidden walls, teleports, and pits all aimed to make progress as arduous as possible. Since there are no random encounters, it’s still fairly swift to get through everything, and Ray Gigant is not nearly as sadistic as many other games in the genre (cough, Dungeon Travelers 2, cough). Still, dungeon design especially towards the end is as unenthusiastic as it comes. The game does feature a handy auto-pilot that enables you to quickly move to a map square visited before but even that gets so confused by teleports and conveyor belts that it eventually turns useless.

Fighting is the only part Ray Gigant almost gets right. The bigger the Gigants, the more awesome they look, and even if the game is relatively easy, slowly chipping away bosses’ massive health meters is always at least a little bit suspenseful. The final boss, though, was cheap beyond belief. About halfway into the fight, it put up such ridiculously heavy defenses that almost nothing seemed to work. In the end, I had to repeat the same boring move macro for almost an hour with even the biggest special attacks dealing only a paltry amount of damage. Even if he fell in the end, it was a dreary battle of attrition.

Thankfully Ray Gigant at least knows how to be moderate. Unlike most JRPGs, the whole adventure took only about 25 hours, and for the most part there were so many good bosses that the overall experience was at least slightly above average. Sure, its story is pointless drivel and there’s no character chemistry whatsoever, but at least everything moves at a brisk pace. On whole, the game is a passable light version of dungeon crawling. It doesn’t come even close to the undisputed (not negotiable) king of the genre, Demon Gaze, but it’s still a decent effort, especially for a lowly budget release. If nothing else, at least its brittle shell hides some neat and original ideas.

Aww… Tokyo Broke Again

Yup… I’d classify that one as big.

So much for the gaming slump, thanks to Experience’s jolly little dungeon crawling JRPG Ray Gigant, even if its premise is hardly original. Tokyo is in ruins once more when aliens known as Gigants suddenly emerge, treating Earth as their personal pantry. The army is quickly annihilated but hey, that’s why there are teenagers! Ichiya Amakaze comes across a mysterious talking talisman, Yorigami, which provides him enough power to take down even a Gigant as large as a high-rise. Much to the chagrin of this reluctant youngster, this power is also a one-way ticket to a secret academy whose students are the final hope to repel the invasion.

Even if the story seems to be as tired as they come, Ray Gigant is still a quirky little title. In a party of three, the players is sent to crawl through grid-based dungeons in first perspective view. There, the youths slays plenty of grunt-level Gigants while working their way to the end to take on a much tougher mid-boss. It’s not until that one is bested that the crew scores a marker that can be used to lure out and kill one of the first-class Gigants that tower dozens of feet in height. Rinse and repeat while Amakaze’s chaperones do their best to figure out how to get rid of the baddies for good.

The biggest asset of Ray Gigant is probably its eccentric battle system. It is based on a pool of a hundred action points shared by all party members. Everyone gets a turn and can execute up to five actions during it. Of course, every action has a price tag, so going mental is only good for exhausting the pool within a single round. Points can be slowly restored either by using an entire turn waiting, or winning the skirmish as fast as possible. Since the game keeps track of the latest moves selected, clever players quickly come up with a handy macro that is good for most occasions. All hit points are automatically restored after each fight, and as there are even an indefinite amount of healing items, you might wonder if such a system has any chance to work in practice.

Challenge stems from having to mind opponents’ strengths and weaknesses in a rock-paper-scissors kind of style, but especially from Parasitism. This nasty disease, carried over between fights, hits after every ten rounds and forces the party into a state where moves cost hit points rather than action points, and that cost is mighty severe. The illness can be surpassed simply by winning the fight in which it occurs, but it can be especially catastrophic during the massive and lengthy boss fights. Thankfully there’s also a power meter that rises ever so slowly in every encounter. If it is even half full, Parasitism can be subdued with a proper harakiri. That’s when Amakaze slices his guts, awakens the full power of his Yorigami, and unleashes an absolutely brutal combo upon his hapless opponents. Its strength is determined by a rhythmical mini-game, so the battle briefly turns into an anime music video during which the player tries to hit as many notes as possible. More hits, more damage. Genuinely neat!

For a dungeon crawler, Ray Gigant is extremely forgiving. There aren’t even any random encounters. At the beginning of every dungeon, Amakaze’s talisman politely analyzes the location of every enemy and treasure on the floor. Even if the actual maps aren’t filled in until moving about, it’s nice to have at least a vague impression of what lies where. The dungeons feature the usual assortment of traps, hidden doors, and teleport panels, but the game doesn’t seem to get overly sadistic with them. Making progress is always a breeze, so the game is perhaps the most suitable title for newcomers interested in the genre.

Still, despite plenty of fun little ideas, the game also stumbles a lot. It’s an ongoing journey but perhaps by the next entry I can construe a solid understanding on why Ray Gigant is likely not much more than “pretty okay.”

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.

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.

Random Rambling of a Gaming Otaku