Danganronpa V3

This post contains spoilers for the entire Danganronpa series. I recommend having played the games before reading this, or you won’t understand much of it. 

Recently I held a poll on my twitter as to which game I should review this month. The choices were between Danganronpa V3, a game most people had at this point moved on from, and Super Mario Odyssey, the current hot topic. I felt sure that Odyssey would win and I’d be able to spend pages upon pages praising that game on everything it does right; on what a joy it is to play; on how it revitalises the collectathon genre, the Mario series, and “open world” gaming. But, in case you hadn’t already guessed, the surprise winner of the poll was Danganronpa V3, the third entry in a series that I hadn’t really given too much critical thought to before this review.

Danganronpa is often introduced to people as an alternative to the Ace Attorney series, which is one of my favourite video game series of all time. But comparing the two does a huge disservice to Ace Attorney. Danganronpa is a pretty bad series of video games. The first game Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc, is really an awful game, and yet it serves as the template for the rest of the series to follow. It features 16 high school students trapped inside their school and forced to play a “Killing Game” by the robotic bear Monokuma. The killing game is an excuse to have the students conduct a series of murder mysteries, all of which are infuriatingly easy to solve, and yet needlessly drawn out by a cast of idiotic characters, none of whom are in the least likeable or fun to spend time with.

The second game, Super Danganronpa 2 Goodbye Despair is slightly more enjoyable, and the cast has one or two memorable faces in it, but it suffers the same problems in its mysteries and its confusingly terrible ending. From my description of the games, it would seem like I wouldn’t have even wanted to play Danganronpa V3, but the series isn’t without certain charms – while the writing isn’t anywhere near the standard of Ace Attorney, it has quite a lot of energy and lowest common denominator humour that, while hit or miss, is often enjoyable in the moment. The pace is infuriatingly slow during the ‘Daily life’ sections, but during the Investigations and Class Trials it picks up in a way that can make discussions feel pretty exhilarating, even if they don’t hold up under close scrutiny. So Danganronpa isn’t entirely without merits, and those bursts of enjoyment led me to pick up Danganronpa V3 Killing Harmony a few months after it came out in the UK.

Discussing V3 [as it will henceforth be referred to] is actually slightly more complicated than it might be to discuss the other games in the series, and the sole reason for this is the ending. Throughout my play through of the game, I was warned about what was apparently the most controversial ending in the series, and while I’ll save my feelings on it for later on, its nature pretty much forces me to split this review into two parts – the game as it is before the final Chapter, and the game post-final Chapter. This allows me to discuss the characters and mysteries of the game without the need for tons of qualifications etc. So, without further ado…

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Danganronpa V3 – Discussing the Prologue to Chapter 5

Much like in the original Danganronpa game, V3 starts by trapping 16 students in a school, and forcing them to take part in a killing game presided over by robot bears. Despite the series only having 3 main entries, the simplistic start is somewhat refreshing. The second game placed its students on an island, gave us two rival robo-bears, and had to deal with the baggage left by the ending of the first game. V3 initially seems as if it rids itself of the baggage of the ‘Hope’s Peak Academy’ arc, and that’s a really promising start.[1]

One of Danganronpa’s problems has always been its interest in creating some kind of huge connected dystopian alternate reality fiction, and that’s ending up distracting from the actual appeal of the games, which are the closed-circle mystery stories.[2] Of course, by Chapter 5 the game reverts to bad habits and the entire story is once again linked to the confusing mythos of Hope’s Peak Academy, which I won’t even begin to explain here because I don’t understand it myself.

The plot follows the basic structure of the first Danganronpa to almost a fault. In the first case, it’s revealed that a female character we thought was going to be important thanks to the game’s marketing (Sayaka in DR1 and Kaede in V3) is actually a murderer. The killing game then continues for a couple of chapters after that, with the third case involving a double homicide and the fifth case being a subversion of the norm due to a trick played by the killer. As the game continues, information about the outside world is drip fed to the players and the characters. Meanwhile, the game “subtly” hints at its underlying themes, before they are unceremoniously shoved into the player’s face in the concluding chapters.

V3’s themes slightly differ from the ‘hope vs despair’ of previous titles, a welcome change given how that theming was not only overused, it was also extremely confused. V3 introduces the central dichotomy of ‘truth’ vs ‘lies’, and it’s already a much easier concept to work with. Danganronpa has often confused ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ for extremely literal concepts, rather than the vague abstracts that they are. Thus, when in those games you have characters that seek to embody ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘despair’, it’s hard to understand. How is someone who is always hopeful meant to act? Can it really be justified that someone so obsessed with the idea of hope ends up committing suicide? Or even that someone obsessed with despair ends up killing themselves instead of those who are meant to be humanity’s final hope for the future?[3] Lies and truth are solid concepts. I understand how a liar is supposed to act, and it’s also a theme that fits so much better with a game about solving mysteries.

Now, the bulk of the exploration of these themes comes in the game’s finale, but they are present in the main game. Lies become a part of the gameplay with the perjury feature, but are also explored within the conclusion and motives to the murder cases. The truth is shown to often be more painful than the lie, for example, the truth that Kaede is the killer ends up being the painful moment that kickstarts Shuichi’s own development. But the obvious example is the motive of Case 4, that Gonta found the truth so painful it spurred him to kill Miu for Kokichi, and then cover up the murder so that everyone would die rather than find out the truth of the outside world. In Case 5, this is also important; Shuichi finding the truth fucks up Kokichi’s suicide plan and his plan to end the game through confusing Monokuma. Finding the truth in this case invalidates Kokichi’s sacrifice and ends up killing Kaito.

The problem is that Danganronpa V3 is often confused with what it wants to say with its theming. It seems to be that lies can lead us to the truth. That’s certainly the aim of the perjury feature. This also lines up with how the revelation of Kaede’s death ends up leading Shuichi to the truth of what role he must play within the killing game. But Gonta’s motive, arguably meant to be the most impactful of the thematically important moments, doesn’t line up with this at all. Instead, the message there seems to be that the truth hurts and can lead people to do horrible things. I’ll go more into why the motive of Case 4 is ruined in other ways, but for now, it’s worth saying that while V3 has a much stronger idea for a theme than the past two games, that doesn’t mean it utilises it well, or really knows what it wants to say.

Anyway, one of the most important explorations of the theme that I haven’t talked about yet is one of the characters, so let’s segue into that topic now…

Class of 2017: The Characters of Danganronpa V3

Characters in the Danganronpa series are always pretty tricky to talk about, because it’s hard to gauge how seriously Kodaka, the series’ lead writer, wants us to take them. All are caricatures that have some tacked on backstory and are built and designed around their ‘ultimate ability’, which is the ultimate worst way to write a character you’re meant to believe in or care about. If Danganronpa didn’t want us to connect with any of the characters and just see them as stock players for the killing game who serve a dual purpose of entertainment in Daily life segments, I’d be fine with that, and in past Danganronpa games I’ve mainly skipped the free-time events so that I can treat the characters like that; pawns in the killing game, not actual people I care about. However, while that works for the most part, the game also forces you to bond with certain characters, and the more it does this, the less I connect or care about these characters. The writers of Danganronpa only know how to write in tropes and archetypes, and that may work fine for expendable background characters, but when they try and make me care about a character, those flaws in writing come to the surface.

Seeing as there are 16 students and 6 robot bears, going through the cast one by one would be a pointless and boring endeavour, so instead I’ll highlight a few characters that I thought worked, and some that I thought didn’t.

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The Serviceable Characters of Danganronpa V3

Looking back at the game, there’s only a few characters I was ever actually happy to see pop up, and one of them is Monokuma (and, by extension, the Monokubs seeing as they serve the same purpose). There isn’t that much to say about Monokuma and the kubs, but their arrival is mainly for exposition and comedy, as well as a blast of their great leitmotif. None of their jokes are particularly laugh out loud funny, but a constant onslaught of bad puns and surreal physical humour is a pretty good recipe for creating some kind of comedic atmosphere.

As a comedy nerd, I might take this juncture as an excuse to talk about the comedy of Danganronpa. To call it lowest common denominator is an insult to the lowest common denominator, and when comedy is used by most of the cast it often comes out of nowhere and is extremely unfunny, sometimes veering on offensive. Miu Iruma is basically the worst example of this; her constant sex jokes weren’t funny to begin with and start to become cringe-worthy as the game continues. I feel genuinely embarrassed on the behalf of the voice actor who had to say, out loud “someone finally called me a cum dumpster”. Another character is basically a walking “caricature” of feminists, but is so far removed from reality that it misses any sort of satirical mark that it might have been aiming for. What’s worse is the way these comic moments are presented, springing out of nowhere from characters in relatively serious situations and for no real reason. The art of comedic timing has not been gifted to the Danganronpa writers. That said, Monokuma and the Monokubs do work, comedy wise.

While the bears were the only characters I was happy to see, I will shout out Shuichi for being a perfectly serviceable protagonist character… for the most part. Being a visual novel protagonist normally means sacrificing anything but the most basic of character development in order to maintain ‘relatability’ with the audience. Danganronpa at least attempts to subvert this slightly by giving Shuichi some rushed development in Case 1, while he’s an NPC. In this case he realises his responsibility as an ‘Ultimate Detective’ in a killing game; falls in love, and most importantly, learns how to take off his stupid hat.

While Shuichi is fine to play as, think about his role in the game too hard and it ceases to make much sense at all. Shuichi is the ‘Ultimate Detective’, and that’s a dangerous role to have in a killing game, especially as a protagonist. The previous protagonists were both talentless, which means that it didn’t make much sense that in the class trials all eyes were on them.[4] In V3, at least, it makes sense that you’re leading the class trials. The writers have also made it so that the characters have motives that mean they probably wouldn’t be aiming to kill Shuichi; that they’re aiming for the mastermind; that Ryoma is the character with no desire to live; that they need to kill a girl; that Miu is about to kill them first and that Kokichi is an asshole. But the sneaking suspicion is still there that certain characters would have their lives made a lot easier if they’d tried to kill the Ultimate Detective as opposed to one of the idiots who contribute nothing to uncovering the murderer.

The biggest problem Shuichi’s talent creates is that, despite the game telling you he’s really clever, he’s an absolute idiot who takes way too long to notice incredibly obvious things. I’ll go over this more when I talk about the mysteries in the game, but there are certain pieces of evidence and obvious clues that Shuichi completely ignores, but that anyone with a title like ‘Ultimate Detective’ should pick up on immediately. I’m not a genius, and I’m certainly no ‘Ultimate Detective’,[5] but that I was able to solve these cases before we even got to the trial doesn’t shine a great light on Shuichi.

While we’re on the subject of protagonists, let’s talk about Kaede, the protagonist of the game for the first 7 or so hours. I can’t outright say something like ‘Kaede is a better protagonist than Shuichi’, because I’m only comparing 7 hours of playtime to 16. However, Kaede is a better protagonist than Shuichi. She’s got a pretty sensible motivation, and the kind of upbeat spirit that’s usually reserved for NPCs who are going to be killed off in a tragic way.

The sarcastic but mostly passive ‘nice guy’ protagonists of previous games (and later of V3) are generally inoffensive enough that I don’t have to think about their presence too much, but I actively enjoyed having Kaede as the protagonist of V3. I think it’s not unfair to compare her to Athena from the Ace Attorney series; a change of pace as a playable protagonist.[6] After everything though, she’s thrown away on a gimmick case, and as a way for Shuichi to get some character motivation.

If I had to suggest some way of improving the game while still keeping the twist intact, I’d have Kaede as the protagonist for more than one case; it would give her much more motivation to kill, make the twist more shocking and allow Shuichi more character development as an NPC. Sadly, unable to not have a weedy shy guy as the protagonist for more than one case, Kaede isn’t given the time in the spotlight she deserved.

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Before I talk about the characters that didn’t work, it’s worth just touching on the extended cast of V3, who I will at least admit I liked more than the casts of the previous two games. Certain characters were annoying to be around, but the general idea of some of the characters; a friendly cult leader; the creepy masked anthropologist etc were entertaining enough that they worked as cannon fodder for the game’s various murders.

I’ll give a shout-out here as well to my favourite background character Ryoma, who ends up as the butt of one of the most successful dark comedy moments in the series. Ryoma considers himself absolutely worthless and even sees himself as a potential sacrifice for the killing game, at least until he learns that Monokuma has prepared motive videos for the cast that will appeal to their reason to live in order to force them to kill to escape the school. Desperate to find his own reason for living, Ryoma goes so far as to blackmail Maki in order to get a hold of his motive video, at which point he finds out… that there’s nothing on it. At this point he allows himself to be murdered by Kirumi, which is a shame, because I found his character a refreshing change of pace for the chipper V3 cast, and the motive video twist is perhaps the funniest moment in the entire game.

The Worst Characters in Danganronpa V3

I said in my introduction to the character segment that the characters who didn’t work in Danganronpa were those that the writers wanted you to care about. For V3, those two characters are Kaito Momota and his would-be girlfriend Maki Harukawa. I can’t really say which is the worst character, but I doubt that really matters. Kaito never really pissed me off as much as he did some people, but I admit that he’s written extremely poorly. He adopts Kaede’s trait of believing in other people, and while he says this a lot, it only comes into practise in Case 4, where he arbitrarily decides that Gonta is the only one of the murderers who couldn’t have actually been the murderer, despite the fact Gonta admits it. This becomes a really arbitrary source of tension between Shuichi and Kaito which is then resolved stunningly quickly, leading me to question what the point of it was beyond turning Kaito into even more of a death flag than he already was.[7]

Aside from this blip, Kaito is pretty much a consistent nice-guy idiot throughout the game, and thus becomes a little dull. The developers don’t even have the balls to make him a proper murderer – it would have been just about believable for him to kill Kokichi, but instead he is pretty much blackmailed into it, which cheapens the twist a little. Kaito is like tinnitus – a constant source of mild annoyance, but eventually it becomes so commonplace that I sort of forget about it. It’s only when it’s pointed out to me that I start to actively dislike it, just as Kaito only becomes a problem when the writers give him something to do.

Maki fares worse with her development, even though coming at it from a point of cultural ignorance one might assume she’s one of the better written characters in the game. Starting off as a cold secretive character who talks little, she slowly befriends Shuichi and falls in love with Kaito, causing her heart to open. The problem is that this character arc is so overdone in anime it even has its own name; tsun/kuudere. But the game, despite being pretty self aware, never calls itself out on using one of the most standard character development arcs in its genre. I don’t hate all cliches or archetypes, but when it becomes impossible to separate Maki from the archetype she’s drawn from, I get bored by each of her appearances. I know exactly what’s going to happen every time she appears on screen, and yet the writers force me to spend time with her as if I’m going to be shocked that she actually has a heart of gold. I won’t go into the inherent semi-sexist problems with this trope that caused Hollywood to abandon it after the 90s, because in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s problem here isn’t just that the trope is bad, it’s that the trope is so ubiquitous that every time I see it, all I can think of is how lazy the writing is.

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As I said, I’m not going to talk about the background characters, because they’re not really begging to be analysed in the detail that the others are. But you’ll notice that one character is conspicuously missing – Kokichi Oma. I decided to give him his own paragraph because he has his own special role in the game; that of the embodiment of the key theme of ‘lies’. Basically, Kokichi is to ‘lies’ what Komeada is to ‘hope’ in DR2, except, as I mentioned before, it’s much easier to imagine what this kind of character is. He basically lies all the time.

Now, before I talk about Oma more, it’s worth noting that his character has been apparently butchered in the translation to English, and there’s already been great writing about this very subject.[8] But I can’t comment on this at all, because I played the English version, and in this version Kokichi is a total dick. Apparently it’s much easier to foresee the twist that Oma actually has a heart of gold in the original Japanese, but here it comes out of the blue, and is handled kind of poorly. Outside of some meta reasoning, you’d be hard pressed to show that Kokichi actually cared about the cast, because while his end game actions show that he wanted to end the killing game, and that he was actually just a leader of the Mischief Makers, nothing he says, nor much that he does, would lead any reasonable person to the conclusion that underneath it all he’s a good guy.

But personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. First of all, Kokichi’s true intentions are always hidden from the player, pretty much up until the end. You can interpret it any way you like, and I think that’ kinda fun. It also has a bit of synergy with the post credits sting, even if it doesn’t sync up too well with the idea of lies being useful. The thing is though, he’s really fun. During trials, he’s the one I was waiting to speak up, because he brings a sense of energy to the proceedings by continually messing with the trials and the player’s mind. Most of Danganronpa’s supporting casts are idiots in the trials, so Kokichi actually presenting a bit of a challenge is cool. Plus, his role as ‘that guy who’s always lying’ means that it makes some sense when he withholds the information he has – unlike the Ultimate Detective in the first game.

So yeah, the most important thing about Kokichi Oma is that he’s fun. It’s fun to watch him insult the other characters, it’s fun to see him lie, it’s fun to have him being tricky in class trials. Even if he doesn’t work thematically as well in the English version, he still ends up my favourite character in the game.

And Then There Were Five Cases

We’re now going to quickly run through the actual murder mysteries of the game, which are, in short, fine. In hindsight, separating this section from the plot part of the review doesn’t make a huge lot of sense, but what’s done is done.

Case One is essentially a gimmick case, but at least it’s a gimmick I’ve wanted to see in playable mystery fiction for a while. Ace Attorney is way too wedded to its main characters to ever do anything like this, so Danganronpa with its preference for shock value over character development was always the series try and pull off the protagonist being the murderer. It’s certainly an impactful surprise half way through the class trial, and while I worked out parts of the murder method, I was too blind to put two and two together when I was playing.[9] But anyone can make a good twist, the key is in making it work, and with this kind of twist it needs to be both surprising and logical – that no clues are hidden from the player. V3 is generally alright at hiding the clues in a way that avoids it cheating, the best example being in how it shows you Kaede organising the books for her death trap. But the actual moment where she drops the ball down the vent is perhaps a bit cheap. There’s a token reference to it – Shuichi leaves before her, and the narration reads “I dropped everything… my heart was racing”, but it’s really not enough, I think; even those who are looking for clues that Kaede is the killer would overlook this section. I do think this is a better problem for the first case to have than the opposite problem that Case 2 has – that it’s all too obvious. With that said, let’s move onto that case.

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Case Two is really where the problems of Danganronpa’s core gameplay loop start to come to the forefront. In the investigation you’re given all the clues to the case, while in the trial your job is solely to put them all together. No new evidence is presented in the trial itself, which means that you can theoretically work out the solutions to each case before you even get to the trial. This isn’t an intrinsic problem, because it’s how most murder mystery novels work. In fact, you can criticise Ace Attorney for pulling a few cheap tricks to invalidate or get evidence from nowhere within its trials.

However, two problems hinder Danganronpa’s structure from working. The first is that certain pieces of evidence make the mystery way too obvious to figure out. In Case Two, it’s the ropes and the black bit of glove found in the pool. This is the worst of the case scenarios in this game, but it’s telling that the entire series has quite a few cases that have this problem. Once again, that wouldn’t be a huge problem, at least if the class trials weren’t so long. In murder mystery books, the reveal section is a couple of pages where the detective, having solved the case, lays out the entire thing in a way that those trying to solve it can check their answers, while those just sitting back can get a good surprise. But in Danganronpa, you have to go through the entire solving process yourself, often with the game forcing you to go down the wrong path. So when you know the answer but still have to go through about 2 hours of class trial, this makes what is otherwise the strongest portion of the game into a massive chore.

Before we get to Case Three, let’s rest a little and talk about free time. Loads of people have already extracted meticulously the problems with Danganronpa’s free time events, but allow me to recap.[10] Free time events allow you to spend time with the characters of your choice, exploring more into their backstory, in an effort to make you care more about them so that when they kick the bucket, you’ll (hopefully) feel worse about it.

But even if you find one or two characters in the cast that you care enough about to not just skip the free time events, they end up being pointless anyway. The game never changes dialogue within the main story events to account for the time you’ve spent with characters, so even if you’ve given Tenko a bunch of presents and cosied up to her, she’ll still act like she hates you in the main story sections. What’s more, the free time events only pay lip service to what’s happening in the plot, making it often a bit confusing why someone is talking to you about their hobbies while the world burns around you.

When you aren’t doing free time or going through the main story, the game will task you to find new areas using special items as a form of puzzle solving, but what this really is is unnecessary padding. In the old games, new areas of the school would be automatically opened to you as soon as you completed a class trial. But now, you have to match some secret item you’re given to a location in the world. This could be a chance for some clever environmental puzzles, but it actually just boils down to hunting around the school for an area that matches in theme with the item you’ve been giving. It’s too easy to be considered interesting, and too tedious to be a fun distraction.

Eventually, the group finds the cult leader Angie lying dead in a locked room, and so begins the third case. I don’t really have much to say about the core mystery here; in fact, I rather liked the way the locked room is set up, and the see-saw trick can be nitpicked to death, but is clever enough in principle.[11] I think the writers really missed a trick, however, in exploiting the loophole that comes about when two people are killed. I thought for sure that Kiyo, the obvious choice for murderer, would have only killed Tenko and not Angie, hence guaranteeing his survival and creating an interesting dynamic outside of the class trial. But nope. He killed them both. This complete missed opportunity baffled me when I played at first, and sours the whole case in hindsight.

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One thing that I (see)saw pointed out about Case Three a lot during my pre-review research was that people hated the Hangman’s Gambit mini game in this case where you had to spell out ‘SEE SAW EFFECT’. This came as quite a surprise to me, because I assumed everyone already hated all the mini games in Danganronpa.

Look, I want to say that I really love lots about V3’s class trials. The style is fantastic; the music is top notch and the core debate mini game is great. The core debate game is basically a timed version of the Ace Attorney cross examination system with some added pressure of having to aim your evidence at the objectionable words.[12] Occasionally the game will cover up words with “white noise”, which takes the form of other words or phrases you have to shoot out of the way, although in this game they’re never fully covering up the phrase you have to shoot to proceed, meaning that they act as more of a hint than a hinderance. V3 does build on the idea of white noise with Mass Panic Debates, but these again often only utilise the shouty bits when covering up the phrase you have to shoot, marking it out.

Further complicating the core debate mini-game is the inclusion of ‘perjury’ – in order to continue one of the game’s themes of lies being helpful to getting to the truth, the case will often require you to lie to proceed. These moments are telegraphed to hell and back, but I nicely found out after beating the game that you can unlock optional routes by lying even when the game doesn’t tell you too. However, the lie system can be a bit confusing; as one reviewer pointed out; “you can’t check lie bullets. While the opposite of “Kaede said she ate the sandwich” might be obvious, the “opposite” of more complex pieces of evidence is not.”[13] So I’m not going to call the new perjury feature an unqualified success, but it never distracted from the core satisfying gameplay of the debates.

What does distract from the debates, however, are the mini-games, which V3 sadly has in abundance. The worst is by far the aforementioned Hangman’s Gambit, which now has been made worse with the addition of a blackout section. The problem with Hangman’s Gambit isn’t just the annoying gameplay but also the fact that since the second game you basically have to start reading the developer’s minds; while in the first game the answer would usually be a simple piece of evidence which you would probably know before going in, now, even if you know how the murder was committed, you have to work out that the developer is trying to say ‘SEE SAW EFFECT’, as if that’s the obvious phrase.

The main new addition game is Psyche Taxi, which is actually just a reworked version of the surfing mini game from DR2. I’m not opposed to this in principle; I love the Ace Attorney Thought Route system, which allows you to work out the answer to big unexpected twists in a stylish way. If anything, Psyche Taxi stands to improve on that by penalising you for answering incorrectly. But it takes so long as to sap any enjoyment out of it. You first have to collect a bunch of letters to spell out the question, and only then are you allowed to answer it. It’s so much of a pace-breaker that the writers are keen to not put it anywhere too climactic. But then at that point what’s the point in going through something that tedious if it’s not going to be the cool major breakthrough of the case?

But I think there’s something else about Psyche Taxi that highlights another flaw in the mini-game system. What are mini-games for? Psyche Taxi, like the Thought Route, is there to facilitate you working out a solution to a complex question by guiding you to it through other easier questions. But it’s the only mini-game that is there to help you work something out. The other mini-games assume you know the answer already, so then the whole thing is just a tedious time waster so that you can say something you already know or present evidence you already have. In Ace Attorney, mini games like the Mood Matrix or the Divination Seance might not be perfect, but at least they have a point; to allow you to uncover new evidence. The mini games in Danganronpa are pointless time wasters, and the only one that is in the service of helping the player work something out takes a stupid amount of time.

Now that we’ve dissected the gameplay, let’s return to the cases, and this time it’s Case Four, which has a really interesting set-up. It’s not a new idea for the Danganronpa universe, for the group to be relocated to another location with its own rules, but I’m always a fan of when Danganronpa utilises its freedom from the restrictions of realism to provide some interesting set-ups for murder. It’s a shame then, that the central “trick” of the virtual world is easy enough to work out during the investigation section, and then is frustrating when the class trial takes so long to get to the revelation that is pretty much obvious from one fact; the way the sign moved. As I mentioned previously, the best part of the case is Kokichi, who basically steps in and starts messing with the rest of the group there by giving away his murder plan, while the others try and work out if he’s crying wolf.

Both cases three and four, however, have a major problem with motive. Case Three’s motive is just batshit insane, and I’m still really unsure if I’m meant to take it at all seriously. In Case Four, the motive problems are more egregious. The fact that Gonta is the murderer is known to computer Gonta, but not to real Gonta. This is done, I assume, so that we, the audience, still feel for Gonta despite him having killed Miu. However, it has the unintended consequence of taking out all the impact from his pretty interesting motive. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting and more of an emotional gut-punch if kindly Gonta had been driven to so much despair by the truth that he not only killed Miu, but hid this throughout the trial. Instead, it’s not even really Gonta who killed Miu, but some crazy laptop Gonta, who may or may not even be the same person as the real Gonta. It’s a strange decision that undermines what I imagine the game was going for.

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Case Five is my favourite in the game, mainly because it plays like a better version of DR2-5, my favourite case in that game. In DR2, the case was trivialised by Komaeda’s luck superpowers, as well as a few other strange inconsistencies. The trick in this case is that the murderer and the victim are both unknown by Monokuma, and thus the killing game is broken, and cannot continue. It’s a really neat trick, and the case bottles along at enough of a pace that you don’t start to question some of the inconsistencies like… why am I solving the case at all, especially if Kokichi’s plan would help the group in the long run, or the convenience of the Exisal with a voice changer and a script written by Kokichi.

I think overall the mysteries in this game are… fine. Not one is perfect, but they all have their highlights, and most hold up when playing them, even if not so well in hindsight. I’m not the king of mystery analysis, and I await eagerly the full breakdown of these mysteries from a more dedicated critic, but I think that during gameplay I was only ever really bored by them occasionally, and I’ve pointed out the most egregious cases of this already. They’re certainly stronger than the mysteries in the previous two games, but they suffer from a feeling of familiarity that irked me a bit. The final mystery I have to talk about, however, comes in Case Six, so let’s now head to the second half of this critique.

End of an Era: The Ending of Danganronpa V3

To borrow a phrase from the youtuber ‘CE53’ whose reviews I recommended earlier in the post, previous Danganronpa endings have always had a “conflict of scope”, which means that although the key narrative focuses on a cast of 16 students, the scope of the ending widens out to include a situation which has affected the entire world. These endings were confusing and inconsistent with the events we had been playing for, and they are understandably pretty much universally derided for this.

I think before we go into discussing the ending of V3, it’s worth having a little PSA about the effect of ret-cons. No matter your opinion on the ending of V3, which creates a situation wherein the events of Hope’s Peak Academy never happened, it shouldn’t affect your opinions on the other two games. A retcon changes the status quo for future stories, but no matter the creator’s intention, it does not effect the quality of past instalments. The endings of the first two Danganronpa games may now be “non-canon”, but I still had to sit through that trainwreck, so they aren’t off the hook. The same sort of applies to the other 5 cases in V3, which is why I split this review up. Yes, it’s easy to say that shoddily written characters “is the point”, that recycled mysteries “is the point”, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend a good chunk of my life having to play through a game with bad characters and recycled ideas for mysteries.

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With that out of the way, let’s talk a little about the case that precedes the first twist and the reveal of the mastermind. The actual case itself is serviceable; running around the school under a time limit is a bit annoying, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about the fact that said time limit ends up not meaning anything, but it gives the case a little bit of a kick up the arse, so there’s that. I like the idea of having a retrial for the first case as well, especially as it manages to address the issue of how conveniently Kaede’s plan worked out (which is something they could have easily never brought up). That said, the mastermind is a little obvious. Tsumugi has done nothing throughout the entire game, and any character who literally calls themselves “plain” is automatically a huge red flag.

Junko Enoshima may be one of the worst written video game villains, but as a twist, she’s pretty good. It’s not out of nowhere, but she’s someone we haven’t thought about in a while, and she’s not a participant in the killing game, which would have been too risky. Tsumugi is predictable, but she’s also a participant in the killing game, which is a real risk for a mastermind. It’s unclear as to how much the killing game is plotted beforehand, but there seems to be an element of spontaneity to it, and Tsumugi wouldn’t have been immortal; were Kiyo to go for her in his hunt for a girl to kill, she couldn’t have stopped him without giving the game away.

If Tsumugi is a bit of a disappointing reveal, the twist that comes afterwards is anything but. I realise that I’m going to be lambasted by both fans of the series and those who hate it, but I liked the ending of V3. If by any chance you’ve gotten this far without having played the game, or need a refresher, the ending boils down to this; the whole game takes place inside a reality TV show version of Danganronpa in an alternate future where the Danganronpa game series has become so popular it has been turned into a ‘Purge’ style reality tv series where contestants sign up for the chance to participate in the killing game, which is on its 53rd instalment (hence the V3). Oh yeah. We’re talking meta here.

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I think we should start by comparing this ending to the endings of the other games, and we’ll find some immediate strengths. While Tsumugi might be a worse twist than Junko, as a character she’s much better. Junko is an awful evil villain, because she’s evil for the sake of it; her Ultimate ability is the “Ultimate Despair”, which means nothing and explains nothing about why she does what she does, other than that she’s a psychopath. Not everything she does even lines up with that sole character trait, however, so not even her one motivation is consistent. Tsumugi, however, is a cog in the machine named “Team Danganronpa”, and their goals are simple and understandable; to sustain the killing game for an audience who enjoy watching it. It’s basically the Truman Show, and like that film, the motivations of sustaining a show for an audience fascinated in real human behaviour under abnormal circumstances, is something I can understand, as opposed to “because the villain loves despair”. I think there’s a bit of ham-fistedness in the way that those watching the show are called “the real masterminds”, but in a situation such as this, that’s the inevitable conclusion to draw, and I wouldn’t expect anything but ham-fistedness from Danganronpa handling that scene. So I think it should be clear that, in its simplicity, the ending of V3 is miles better than what came before. But that’s a very low bar to clear, so why do I actively like the ending so much?

Part of it is certainly that I like meta twists; they’re fun, and I think a lot of people put too much weight on them. Using meta doesn’t mean you have to have a point to it; meta can be employed simply because it’s an entertaining twist for an entertaining game, and I think that’s why I enjoy it here. People are more touchy about self-critical meta (also known as “lampshading”), and I actually agree with this wholeheartedly. It’s not an excuse for awful characters and a bad villain that “it’s because the fans lap it up and we know we’re lazy, you’ll just enjoy it anyway”. But you already know I don’t like lampshading; it’s why I split this post up into two parts so I could fully criticise the game without even mentioning the game’s criticisms of itself.

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Here’s the nub of it though; I don’t have enough respect for Danganronpa for me to get angry that the game shrugs its shoulders and gives up at the end. To me, Danganronpa is an inconsequential safe space in which a bored writer can live out his meta fantasies. Free from the restraint a story with any weight, Kodaka can basically say ‘fuck it’ to his work of the past 7 years and create a wonky, but ultimately really fun ode to meta. This isn’t some great work of fiction, but it shows that meta doesn’t have to be used to make some grandiose statement, but also just for a bit of fun. I think the execution leaves something to be desired; it takes much too long, and occasionally lapses into taking itself too seriously, which only highlights the flaws in the game’s writing. But… and I know this is a cop-out; it’s fun. It plays with the themes of the game in a way that makes sense; lies vs truth, fiction vs reality. It spins twist after twist, all of which are fun to figure out and hear and it’s also a cathartic destruction of a confusing lore for a bad series. In a way, I feel like Kodaka realised his mistakes with the previous two games in the series and decided to just take them apart in the most fun way he could think of; like realising a SimCity town you’ve spent ages on is fundamentally flawed, and then setting the dinosaurs and UFOs on it.

I did say earlier that the final chapter is where the themes of the games were really pushed onto the player, and this is true of V3’s ending as well. Because everything in the game has been a lie; the characters are just fake memories with fake personalities; none of the Hope’s Peak Academy backstory or connections are real and the earth is still there. I think the game gets a bit confused at this point, because much of K1-B0’s final speech is about how fiction has the power to influence reality. This is fine, but I’m not sure it’s the right message to go with what’s happening in the game. Instead, I think that what the game is trying to convey is that even though the game is fiction and the memories are fake, that doesn’t fully invalidate them; what happened during V3 still happened to those characters, even if their memories are false. There’s a subtle distinction there. One is that ‘fiction has the power to influence reality’ and the other is questioning what the boundaries between the two even are. I think that this is a nugget of really interesting philosophy buried within the ending, and even if it isn’t fully explored within the game itself, it’s worth mentioning.

One question that leaves me with is how you should treat Danganronpa. The game often treats itself seriously, and I think Kodaka did actually want me to care about Maki and Kaito, and to take a message about fiction away from the ending. When the game wants me to take it seriously, that’s when I realise how bad it is. But in a series that includes robot bears and where each character is defined in-game by their caricatures, I can’t take it all too seriously, and I think that works in its favour. As a critic, this pains me, because I think that the idea of “switching your brain off” or the idea of letting something get off the hook for bad writing is a harmful idea. But Danganronpa has done that to me. It has broken my deep set beliefs that every work of art should be judged in the same way, under the same criteria, and with the same scrutiny. I hope in this post I’ve managed to level enough criticism at the game, but I also need to be honest as a reviewer, and say that I did really enjoy the ending.

With all that in mind, I think it’s time for

The Conclusion

Danganronpa V3 is not a good game. It’s the best instalment in a fundamentally broken series, and yet it still gets a lot wrong. It has badly written characters, and mediocre mysteries, and it further helps to ruin one of the series’ only consistently enjoyable elements; the class trials. But I can’t say that its ending, a brazen rejection of all that came before from a writer clearly fed up with his own work, isn’t at all cathartic. Were this a series I got more out of than occasional enjoyment value in its bonkers mysteries, bizarre sense of humour and sometimes fun characters, then I might have different things to say about this ending, but for pure enjoyment value it worked for me. So I think in the end, all I want you to take away from this long rambling essay is that Super Mario Odyssey is probably a contender for one of the greatest games of all time, certainly of this year. Its short but continuously inventive story campaign introduces the beautiful and content rich mini open worlds that are then expanded on in the seemingly limitless post game, but most importantly, it’s extremely enjoyable in the way only a Mario game can be.


 

[1]  I have yet to watch the anime which concludes that arc, but while the game mentions it, knowledge of it isn’t required. I have, however, played the abysmal spin-off title ‘Ultra Despair Girls’, although again, this isn’t required playing.

[2] You could argue for a while about what the actual appeal of the games are, and it’s true that it varies hugely from person to person, but while there are boat loads of high-school sims and dystopian YA novels/games, there’s very few closed circle murder sims out there.

[3] I can only imagine how confused this makes those reading this who haven’t played Danganronpa, but I can assure them I also have no idea what I’m talking about.

[4] Especially in DR1, where the Ultimate Detective there had pretty much always solved the case before the trial even started.

[5] For proof, please check out my podcast Murder at Podcast Manor (on iTunes now (sorry for the shameless plug))

[6] Athena is a much more problematic and unnecessary character than Kaede, but I will maintain that she feels like a stark change of inner monologue compared to Phoenix and Apollo.

[7] My favourite reddit comment refers to Kaito as “more death flag than man”

[8] https://pastebin.com/nASSfuLK < this contains the specific post, but the source is http://oumakokichi.tumblr.com/

[9] This is a good point to mention that I won’t really be nitpicking the cases for predictability in hindsight, mainly because my post style falls somewhere between critical analysis and personal experience, and here I’m leaning on the personal experience. This is partly so I don’t have to do the work, and partly because I think that I’m reasonably well versed in detective fiction, so that if something escaped me it would escape the average player. Nitpicking isn’t also really where I get my kicks, or something I’m very good at (although I appreciate it when others do it). But I’m more than willing to admit I’ve missed out some key plot holes, and I’m sure some obliging people will point out what I’ve missed in the comments.

[10] I implore everyone with the time to watch CE53’s series on Danganronpa

[11] I’ll resign my nitpicking to down here for now – despite the fact that the characters should be able to hear everything going on in this tiny room, the players only hear Kiyo stamping on the board, when we should also be able to hear him moving around given that he’s singing, and probably we should hear him rubbing salt on the floor.

[12] I would say added pressure came from the timers, but it really doesn’t.

[13] https://bp-reviews.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/new-danganronpa-v3-v3.html

 

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Top 5 TV Shows of 2017

It’s December, which means it’s the season to reflect on the year and assign an arbitrary number to the things you liked over the past 12 months. This year, I’m splitting up my lists in order to tantalise my readers, and give me more things to post this month. (I’m still working on my review of Danganronpa V3, which should hopefully be out sometime next week). I’ve decided to start with TV shows, because no new TV shows are coming out or ending this month that will bump anything off this list. If Black Mirror Series 4 ends up surprise dropping just after I post this, then so be it, but other than that, the TV season is over for this year. I’ve also extended the boundary to mean that old shows can now appear on this list, meaning I’m ranking it by season, not simply first season, which I thought was a bit limiting. Anyway, with that rambling out of the way, let’s continue.

Honourable Mentions

I didn’t have any of these last year, but 2017 has been so fantastic for media (perhaps compensating for other deficiencies) that all my lists now need this. I guess I’ll start by shouting out the last thing to be bumped off my list – Nirvanna The Band The Show, which aired two excellent seasons this year despite not even being on my radar until it was half way through the second season. It’s notable for its semi-documentary stylings, wherein the majority of the show is scripted, but chance encounters with ordinary people often change the direction of the episode’s plot. It’s also got a really nice relaxed and unique style of comedy that comes with the improvised nature of the show. It’s hard to find to watch, but worth seeking out. I think Crashing also deserves a mention on here; even though it’s another “comedian makes semi-autobiographical semi-comedy show”, it really worked for me, and since we can’t watch Louie anymore, this fills in the void nicely.

There are loads more shows I’d want to talk about in detail, but because that’d make this way too long, here’s a list of what to check out for you; Lady Dynamite Series 2 (the first season made my list last year, this season is more of the same in a very good way); Curb Your Enthusiasm Series 9 (the worst season of Curb is still good TV, and it’s just nice to have Larry back); Back (basically Peep Show with beards, but who doesn’t love Peep Show?); Big Mouth (Nick Kroll and John Mulaney cartoon about puberty… somehow surprisingly touching); The Good Place (The best network show everyone is talking about); The Mick (The best network show no one is talking about) and Vice Principals, which finished its short run to become an excellent dark comedy, even if the ending didn’t blow me away.

5. On Cinema: The Trial of Tim Heidecker

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Part of what makes me love the trial season of On Cinema so much is that it’s really ambitious television. On Cinema, for those who aren’t aware, is a web series hosted by Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington where they review films on a scale of 1 to 5 (or is it 6?) bags of popcorn. As the series progresses, hints as to the two’s personal lives are revealed and the show becomes a mini soap opera that plays out on the set of a film review show. The On Cinema universe has even expanded to take over the twitter handles of both Tim and Gregg, as well as the creation of the band Dekkar, and a whole separate TV show Decker, created by Tim and Gregg (in character). The show’s fanbase are also an integral part of the experience, continuously in character when interacting on social media. It’s an amazing experimental miniature universe, which was bought to some kind of a culmination this year in the trial of Tim Heidecker, broadcast live over 6 days, and played amazingly straight by a cast of On Cinema regulars and some lawyers. I’m not sure if the trial itself was more captivating than watching it with the On Cinema Facebook page open, but On Cinema has only ever partly been about the show, and has grown to encapsulate the fan base. Even so, the trial stands out as great television, with some classic courtroom drama and pretty hilarious cringe comedy. Without the fans, this might land only in my honourable mentions of the year, but On Cinema wouldn’t exist without its fanbase. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

Even putting aside my bias as a Gregghead, this trial was a total SHAM and a mockery of the legal system. It’s obvious to everyone with half a brain that Tim meddled behind the scenes here – he paid off witnesses for fuck’s sake! Also, that Star Trek writer was completely misguided, and Tim was leading the witness anyway. What a disgrace…. but at least we can now focus back on what matters, the movies.

4. Trial and Error

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I talked in my Office post, as well as in my review of The Good Place, how much of a Michael Schur fan I am. In Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Good Place, he’s crafted three worlds that are a pleasure to inhabit, with extremely likeable characters and comedy that is relaxing and laugh out loud funny. Many shows have attempted to crib his style, but the one that comes the closest is for sure sure this year’s Trial and Error. I think it succeeds in aping Schur’s style mainly by not trying. The town of East Peck bares a passing resemblance to Pawnee, but its local customs have more of the absurdist comedy of a Fey/Carlock show. The show also has much more of a running plot than any of Schur’s shows, even The Good Place. Because of its courtroom setting (I’m sensing a trend), the show has much more of a narrative thrust, which gives it a great sense of pacing and light tension to the comedy. But although the comedy of the background is absurdist, and the narrative is pushed to the forefront, the character comedy that defines a Schur show is replicated brilliantly here – even though each character is a joke, they’re a joke with real heart, and that’s the essence of a truly great single cam ensemble comedy. I hope I’m not diminishing the show’s unique charms by constantly comparing it to Schur’s shows, but given that Schur is my favourite comedy tv show creator working at the moment, it’s high praise indeed.

3. Review: The Final Season

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I’ve written extensively about this season of Review already, and its place as only #3 on this list should give you an idea of how amazing this year was for television. Review, is, after all, still my favourite TV show… ever. And this final season, despite its short length, wrapped it up admirably. I think the final episode ranks among this year’s best episodes of TV, but the preceding two episodes felt slightly as if they were in service of setting up for that finale, and as such they make the whole season a little worse. (To continue the courtroom theme, while justifiable, I found the way the trial wrapped up a little disappointing). Still, two mediocre episodes of Review are still two incredible episodes of television. Andy Daly’s show tracks the fall of Forrest MacNeil with the kind of dark comedy that most comedians would be terrified to touch with a ten foot pole. And he does this while still managing to craft a show that’s amazingly funny and explores ideas about criticism and what it means to have an unwavering dedication to your work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show quite like Review, and this final season, and most importantly, this final episode, ends it perfectly.

2. Master of None 

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The first season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None was pretty good. Although Aziz Ansari isn’t a perfect actor, he’s a great comedian, and much of his best material translated well to a tv show. Some episodes in the first season went above and beyond, but often they were a bit meandering, a bit unmemorable – not funny enough to make the mundane watchable, but with not enough to say that the comedy wouldn’t be missed. The second season immediately injects the show with a bit of energy by constructing a loving ode to Italian cinema – beautifully shot and lightly funny, with a plot that sets up perfectly Dev’s struggle in love during the second season. As it progresses, each episode does something unique and memorable, and even the more “mundane” of the episodes are bolstered by a strong ongoing plot. Episodes like “Thanksgiving”; “First Date” and “New York, I Love You” distract from the central love affair between Dev and Francesca, but are strong enough to work on their own right. Meanwhile, the pivotal romance, explored in the Italy episodes, “The Dinner Party” and the two final episodes, is absolutely heartbreaking and brilliantly real. Even if Ansari isn’t the greatest actor out there, the script seems to be tailored to make his (to be generous) “naturalistic” performance shine. What’s more, the series’ signature sense of style is played up to the fullest, with an excellent soundtrack and visual direction. A jump in quality and confidence this severe is always heartening to see, and even if Master of None doesn’t return for a third season (which, given the ambiguity of the final shot, I hope it doesn’t), it makes me anxious to see Ansari’s next project.

1. Nathan For You

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Nathan For You has always had a special place in my heart as the counterpart to Review that I found delivered more laughs out loud, but was, at least in my eyes, always in the shadow of its Comedy Central companion (I do realise how arbitrary the comparison is, but I’m not the only one to have made it). Finally, with the fourth season, it has surpassed it. To be more precise, two episodes really make this season shine above the rest. That’s not to say other episodes weren’t great; they played out as “standard” Nathan For You episodes, meaning they delivered lots of laughs and great moments, but weren’t quite groundbreaking. However, “The Anecdote” and “Finding Frances” rank as two of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in a long time – good enough to catapult this season of Nathan For You to the top of an excellent year for TV. I can’t say much about “The Anecdote”, because to do so would be to ruin the surprise, but it is the perfect blend of hilarity and really clever humour, capitalising on the pre-release hype of the fans in a genius way. “Finding Frances”, the series finale, turns from classic laugh-out-loud Nathan For You schemes into a touching exploration of love that plays with the boundaries of the show’s reality TV format to genuinely profound effect. The final shot, which uses a drone to reveal the cameras that have been filming the entire show, is lent a huge poignancy by the people on whom it focuses. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything about this episode, but I don’t really see any way Nathan For You could improve on it. If this ends up being the show’s final season, it will have gone out not only on a personal high, but on a high for all reality TV.

So that’s my favourite TV of the year. The other two lists (films and games) will come out over the course of December, but before that will be the V3 review, so look forward to that!

Office Politics

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Before I begin, it’s worth saying how this post will likely draw some ire, so I think I need to do some major clarifications before I begin. First of all, this is by no means trying to be any sort of definitive ranking of the two series, because both have carved out their own niches enough that they can happily co-exist. I’m also not trying to find out which one I prefer more, because I already know that I prefer the original UK version of the Office. I think that’s worth putting at the front, because it serves as a useful lens through which to view the rest of this essay, but also because a large chunk of this essay hopes to prove why I feel this way in a slightly more detailed way than ‘I think this is funnier’. Hopefully though, fans of both series will be interested to see an evaluation of the differences between the original and the remake; what gives each its unique flavour, and what makes fans so passionate about defending one against the other. Both shows have been highly lauded and hugely influential, and exploring these titans of comedic pop-culture is always an interesting challenge. One further clarification should be mentioned. While I will be mentioning the Office UK’s Christmas Special, my focus will be on the main two seasons. What’s more, I will only be focusing on the US Office Seasons 2-5, with little mentions of the later seasons. This is mostly for the sake of fairness; most fans of the US Office agree the show went downhill in its later years, and comparing lesser episodes of the US Office to the UK Office (which was able to maintain a consistent quality thanks to its shorter length) would feel a bit wrong. Moreover, the first series borrows plots and scripts wholesale from the UK Office, which puts it in opposition to the tone and style the series would come to be known by.

Deciding where to start this comparison would always be tricky, but the most obvious place to start is with the respective show’s intros. I’m not talking about the pilots, but about the opening themes, which demonstrate neatly the shows differences in tone. Sure, both begin with shots of the city, but the songs used couldn’t be more different. The UK version is a melancholy tune, the opening video shows no characters, and the landscape it depicts is the grey and lifeless concrete blocks of the Slough trading estate. Meanwhile, the US version has a much more upbeat feel to it; Scranton isn’t all trading estates, it’s old clock towers and a (literally) welcoming sign. The US Office’s opening also introduces its cast within the opening credits, and when it does so, the tempo of the theme picks up (about 6 seconds into the opening). Characters aren’t shown doing as wacky hijinks as something like the FRIENDS opening, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The UK Office presents its mission statement as something quite quietly melancholic, whereas the US one welcomes you to Scranton and its colourful cast of characters. So, it’s a small thing, and one I’m sure many viewers will pick up on, but its worth commenting on nonetheless, because it instantly makes an impact on the viewer and informs them of the mindset to enter into when watching. The US Office compounds this in its second season (which marks the point it clearly breaks away from the UK mould), by introducing cold opens. It’s important to note that while the cold opens occasionally have an effect on the rest of the episode, or on the character dynamics, they are almost always comedy-focused. The most famous of the US Office’s cold opens is Dwight’s fire drill, which becomes the focus for the rest of the two episode arc, but is primarily focused on comedy first. That’s because the US Office is once again setting the tone for the series in its first few minutes. Neither of these things may seem as important as whether you like Michael Scott or David Brent more, but they are indicative of the show’s overall aims.

Both the US and UK Office are clearly very accomplished show, but it’s their success in achieving the tone they introduce with their openings where my central point lies. I think it’s important to lay out my central hypothesis as soon as possible, so that hopefully my other points start to make sense. In my opinion, the US Office, while being a fantastic show, never managed to escape the influence of its UK forefather, because it became shackled by the conventions of that show. To put it in a really clear example, let’s look at…

The Office as Documentary

In both versions of the Office, the show uses the framing device of a documentary in order to tell its story. While nowhere near the first mockumentary, the UK Office was certainly one of the first major proponents of the genre on TV, and the format became vital to the show’s feel and premise. David Brent is half the way he is because of his awareness of the cameras. So many of his lines and actions are directed towards the camera; he’s showing off, he’s trying to be funny, and that he’s so obviously performing for the camera makes his act that little bit more pathetic. When the series crossed to the US, the documentary style crossed with it, and the US show found a completely new way to make it an integral part of the experience. While Scott still plays to the camera a little, its main use is for the confessional segments of the show; where one person says something, and then turns to the camera and says a completely different thing for a joke, or for more heartfelt moments. Both shows have both parts of the documentary style, but each puts its emphasis on a different part. However, the documentary stuff in the US Office almost always feels unrealistic. It hasn’t really been thought out properly; the main use is for gags, and the show really feels like it often wants you to forget that this is a documentary. Instead, it wants to have its cake and eat it; it wants the cutaway gags and the occasional use of the cameras as a plot device, but it also wants to be able to do things completely unrealistic for a documentary (like go on for 9 years).

So here’s where I’m going to bring in another show; Parks and Recreation. Parks and Rec was created to be a spin off show to the Office, and its two creators were Greg Daniels, who was the show runner for the Office, and Michael Schur, who worked on the Office (and played the role of Mose Schrute). Parks and Rec does indeed have its cake and eat it. It uses cutaway gags in the exact same way the Office does, but it circumvents the problem of realism by never mentioning a documentary or documentary crew. Shows like Modern Family did the exact same thing; taking the part of the documentary format that worked the best for comedy, and leaving out the baggage because the audience doesn’t really care. The Office US hadn’t quite figured that out yet; from its start it had boldly followed the UK Office into the documentary style, but when its scope and tone evolved, the show was left with a few things from the UK Office that never quite worked. The documentary style is one, while the other is…

The Office as Cringe Comedy

The UK Office is one of the prime examples of a cringe comedy; a show that, at points, almost hurts to watch. It’s this aspect of the show’s comedy that often marks out the UK version of the show as the less popular of the two (not, mind you, the worse). It’s because cringe comedy is extremely divisive. It’s worth noting that the cringe comedy of the UK Office isn’t equivalent to ‘UK humour’ (if such as thing exists) – cringe comedy is universal, but the UK version of the Office certainly employs it more liberally than its US counterpart. Cringe comedy relies on a certain kind of comedic incongruity; that the character (here David Brent), is someone who completely sidesteps social norms and is incredibly egotistical and selfish. Cringe comedy relies on the viewer not being disturbed by this, but instead finding it amusing, while those who aren’t as open to this style of comedy will find this specific kind of humour annoying. It’s important to note that this isn’t a judgement on the show’s humour, nor on the people who either like or dislike this style of comedy. But it’s equally important to notice that the UK Office trades almost exclusively in cringe comedy. The US Office, then, when adapting the UK Office had to adapt this particular aspect as well. Much like the aforementioned documentary style, it’s a key aspect of what makes ‘The Office’ ‘The Office’. Nevertheless, as the US Office progressed, the show runners decided to play to their strengths with a broader style of humour. As such, while the more painful elements of the comedy are still present, they’re toned down and less divisive humour replaces much of it. Michael Scott is still an awkward, socially transgressive and egotistical boss, but the kinder elements of his personality are played up a lot more, and the series is as a whole less grounded in reality, meaning that the cringe elements are a lot easier to swallow. For many people, it’s this shift in humour that really makes the US version superior.

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However, it’s worth considering the effects this shift has on the US Office. I think for this purpose, we can look pretty much exclusively at the Series 4 episode; The Dinner Party. This episode has been constantly lauded as one of the US Office’s finest episodes, and I can’t help but agree with this. But it’s also worth noting how tonally inconsistent it is with the rest of the show. The episode plays up a lot of the cringe comedy elements to the point where it’s nearly unbearable, but it keeps itself on the right side of the line with enough laugh out loud moments to be worthy of praise as a tonal balancing act alone. But this episode really feels like it’s trying to cater to the UK Office’s influence rather than steak out its own path. The character of Jan, for example, is hilarious within the context of the episode, but her arc over the course of the series is a constant downer; it’s a showcase of a mental breakdown, and while it may be slightly exaggerated, it’s much more in the comedic style of the UK Office than the US show it actually appears in. I think characters like Jan and Ryan, whose life stories come very close to the depressing, are the US Office’s attempts to pay heritage to its roots. But deep down, the show desires to be more like Parks and Recreation, which it will eventually become. So the show has these two creative directions pulling it in opposite directions. The desire to remember where the show came from creates these interesting and depressing character arcs, as well as the more cringe moments of the show’s comedy. Meanwhile, the natural comedic instinct of the show’s creators are pulling it towards being something much lighter in tone, and more akin to Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine Nine or any of the other shows that were either created by Schur and Daniels or were inspired by them. Sometimes, as in the case of The Dinner Party, these creative directions will work and produce great episodes of television, but when viewed as a whole, the inconsistencies in the show’s tone start to show.

Close studies

Ok, so hopefully you know understand my general attitude towards both versions of the Office. With that done, we can now move onto some closer studies of specific scenes and characters that appear in both versions. This isn’t exhaustive, nor is all of it that enlightening. But I think it’s still a useful exercise.

The Fire Drill

The Fire Drill cold open is one of the funniest and most famous of the US Office’s cold opens, and in fact forms the basis for a two episode long arc. In the UK Office, the fire drill is pretty inconsequential. Let’s focus first on that one, because it highlights neatly the two areas that I was just rattling on about. Firstly, the documentary format is put to good use, because Brent constantly speaks to the camera, and brags about how, while the drills are required by law, he only does them because he really cares about the safety of his staff. His need to show off to the cameras leads into the cringe comedy moment, when he stops the disabled member of staff from leaving early because he needs to be the one to do the ‘heroic’ thing in front of the camera and lead her to safety. Eventually, the punchline comes in her being too heavy for Brent and Gareth, and them leaving her to ‘die’ on the stairs. It’s a neat little comedic moment that doesn’t play too heavily into any story moments, but reinforces Brent’s character while providing a few solid laughs.

The US segment also plays on the documentary aspect, but it’s not as crucial to character as it is to plot. Sure, the fact that Dwight would do such a thing is a neat and fitting character moment, but this could be communicated without the use of a documentary framing device. Brent wouldn’t be doing what he was doing (bragging, then intercepting the disabled worker) if the camera wasn’t there. Dwight would always be doing this, and the only use of the documentary crew is that it allows the show to have him talk directly to camera and explain his action. This is just another example of how the documentary is more integrated into the UK version than the US version. The comedy here is also indicative of the differences between the two. Instead of the cringe realism of the UK Office, the humour is bombastic and much more slapstick. It certainly delivers a lot more laugh out loud moments in its timespan; the cat falling from the roof; Kevin running into people; Michael trying to smash the window with a chair. Even Stanley’s heart attack is timed like a perfect punchline. This, is clearly the show the US Office aspires to be; it wouldn’t feel out of place in a later Schur show in its comedic styles, and it plays to the show’s ensemble nature by having each character’s reaction to the “fire” be both hilarious and fitting. I think this segment showcases each show’s individual stylings at their best; the UK Office playing on what makes it unique, while the US Office crafts a segment that shows the comedic styles its creators would become best known for.

A Prank in Poor Taste

In the very first episode of the UK Office, Brent pretends to fire Dawn for ‘stealing… thieving’ post-it notes from Wrenham Hogg. The point of view character (the new temp in the office) has been informed that David is going to play a prank on Dawn, but the scale of the prank isn’t really told to us. It’s hard to see the comedy in this scene, especially when Dawn starts to cry… but it is there. It’s present in the patronising way Brent says ‘good girl’, the lame excuse he gives as to why he’s firing Dawn. But I think to see this scene as primarily comedic misses the point. This is an extremely important character introduction to David Brent, and while we’ll talk more about his character in the next section, this is really all the viewer needs. It’s the perfect introduction to his selfish behaviour, and the show treats it as seriously as it needs to. The UK Office is as concerned with realism as comedy, and so a prank like this can’t get brushed off.

The US Office repeats this scene nearly word for word in its first episode as well, but because it’s so similar it seems pointless to compare. Instead, we’ll look at a scene from Season 5 Episode 26 (near the end of the episode – couldn’t find this clip on youtube…), wherein Michael Scott once again pretends to fire Pam when he has to decide about whether he should let her or Ryan go. Here the difference in comic approach couldn’t be clearer, because the heightened reality that the US Office takes place in allows for the prank to pretty much go off without consequence. Pam doesn’t seem that upset at being fired, and Michael’s prank is treated as the silly but forgivable joke of a little boy; the scene ends in a happy resolution, with Michael laughing and Pam happy at eventually getting the job. There’s a really solid joke in there about Michael pretending to hire Ryan, and him being really unhappy about not actually getting the job, but it’s crucial that the show doesn’t show that moment, but instead the moment with the happier resolution. It’s a shift in worldview on two accounts; the first is that a cruel prank isn’t condemned as harshly because as long as the resolution is happy it seemingly doesn’t matter. The second is that the crueller moments are no longer shown, but left offscreen and used as a spoken punchline. By this point, the US Office has shifted into a more comic semi-reality that many feel-good sitcoms take place in, and so it no longer needs to deal with the heavy consequences of a joke someone like Brent or Scott would play. Speaking of…

Battle of the Bosses

“We had to make Michael Scott a slightly nicer guy, with a rosier outlook to life. He could still be childish, and insecure, and even a bore, but he couldn’t be too mean. The irony is of course that I think David Brent’s dark descension and eventual redemption made him all the more compelling. But I think that’s a lot more palatable in Britain for the reasons already stated. Brits almost expect doom and gloom so to start off that way but then have a happy ending is an unexpected joy. Network America has to give people a reason to like you not just a reason to watch you. In Britain we stop watching things like Big Brother when the villain is evicted. We don’t want to watch a bunch of idiots having a good time. We want them to be as miserable as us. America rewards up front, on-your-sleeve niceness. A perceived wicked streak is somewhat frowned upon.”

-Ricky Gervais

I think this is really the area where most of the differences between the two versions have been written about, and I think it’s here where I’ve really had the most difficulty. But I actually think Gervais is wrong when he says things like ‘Scott… couldn’t be too mean’, because as the above example shows, Scott is exactly as mean as Brent, but the audience is never meant to feel that. It’s not a shock to anyone that much of comedy is all about action/reaction, but it’s always worth emphasising how important that second part is. Because even with Scott doing something as cruel as fake firing one of his staff members, it’s the reaction that tells the audience how we’re meant to feel about this. In the UK Office, we’re clearly meant to see Brent as the unfunny, insecure man he is when Dawn starts crying and insulting him. In the US Office, we’re meant to see Scott as just a little bit out of the loop and oblivious, and Pam’s reactions tell us that. So I’m not sure if Scott actually is a ‘nicer guy’, or if the people around him and the show are just slightly more forgiving of his screw-ups. I also don’t think Scott is necessarily more liked by his co-workers than Brent is. Over the course of 7 seasons, it’s natural that there are more moments wherein Scott and his employees get along than in the UK Office’s 2 seasons. But it’s wrong to say that Brent’s staff are constantly annoyed with him – scenes like the Mhana Mhana song and the guitar recital spring to mind, but it’s clear that neither boss is always hated. It’s true, however that Brent never gets the emotional moments of character interactions like Scott gets (think: buying Pam’s paintings). So is Brent or Scott ‘nicer’? I think Scott still has the edge, but hopefully I’ve shown that it’s not as clear cut as it seems.

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I think character development is also really important in assessing the two characters, and I think it’s actually here where Brent edges out Scott and becomes my choice for the better character. Both characters start from the exact same base point, if only because they use the exact same script for the first episode, and most of the same plots for the first season. And just as both start off as insecure, attention seeking idiots, they end up as much more tolerable people. I think Brent’s character development is problematic, however, as it’s poorly paced as all hell. Almost the entirety of it is consigned to the two-part Christmas special, and even there most of it is at the end. The Christmas Special devotes most of its energy to putting Brent through the ringer and making him suffer as much as possible before it can redeem him. This certainly makes sense; Brent is enough of an asshole that we need to see him suffer before he can be redeemed, and the only way for the audience to get on his side is by assuring us that he’s had his just desserts. But what this means is that it takes a long time for Brent to eventually get his redemption at the Christmas party; he’s finally allowed to relax with his date and, more importantly, he’s allowed to stand-up to Finchy. This segment is incredibly important and well constructed. His date hasn’t seen The Office, because it finally allows Brent to act himself and be relaxed in his own skin, no longer having to be the entertainer. We don’t see or hear his conversation with his date, and that’s quite important. Free from the documentary cameras, Brent’s body language relaxes and he seems to be engaging the person he’s with. And, having relaxed, he can finally stand up to Finchy, someone who he’s previously idolised, and even make his co-workers laugh. It’s not a full redemption – we don’t have people finally lauding Brent or him getting his job back. But it’s a start; a glimpse that a more compassionate man lies underneath Brent’s assholish exterior. The whole section is too short in the timeline of the series to be  fantastic character development, but it’s a sublime little moment within its own context.

There is, however, one advantage of Brent’s development consigned to the last episode; it means the show can never go back on it (unless you’re Life on the Road). Scott’s development is much more drawn out, and pretty inconsistent because of it. I think familiarity is often mistaken for character development in long sitcoms, but they really aren’t one and the same. Sure, over 9 seasons I get to know Jim Halpert really well, but that doesn’t mean he’s changed or developed as a character much. It’s easy to mistake our increased familiarity with Scott’s character flaws and motivations as development and character change. Our relationship with him has changed through exposure to more aspects of his life, but that doesn’t equate to him having changed. Now, it’s also important to say that character development isn’t necessary to make a good show (especially for comedies); none of the cast of It’s Always Sunny change too much over 12 seasons, but that doesn’t stop them from being a fantastic comedic cast. In fact, I still find the US Office’s characterisation of Scott incredibly well done. It’s always worth noting, though, that long running shows are so often too scared from changing their characters in any major ways (past ironing out the kinks of a first season or so, or the natural effects of flanderization). So, even if Michael manages to let go of his dream of making Threat Level Midnight before he leaves the show for good, in his final episodes he’s still making the same awful, corny semi-offensive jokes he always has. The difference is that his staff now laugh along with him. Again, I want to stress that I love Michael Scott as a character; I think he is one of the best things about the US Office – I think with the extra time they had they were able to fully explore this insecure and unloved buffoon and make him amazingly watchable and loveable. However, I don’t think the show ever managed the master stroke that the UK Office pulled in its finale.

Really though, the two characters become somewhat incomparable, because of one really important difference between the two shows; their length. I haven’t really talked about this before, because I don’t feel it’s been relevant until now, but the difference in the number of episodes really changed the approach of the two shows towards their respective leads. Scott was allowed time and heartwarming moments for the audience to warm to him, but it’s arguable that it wasn’t so much that he changed, as much as our relationship to him changed. Meanwhile, Brent is finally allowed redemption and a chance to change by the end of the series, but its short length means this is somewhat of a squished moment – it’s not quite given enough time to breathe. So both bosses are fantastically written characters that have an eventual redemption in the eyes of the audience, but the way in which this is handled changes because of the respective lengths of the shows.

Conclusion: The Office as a Love Story

Of course, the characters most affected by the change in length are the two lovers; Dawn and Tim in the UK version, and Jim and Pam in the US version. Here’s one section where I think the UK version trumps the US remake almost hands down. The thing is, much of what keeps the UK and US Office’s so amazingly watchable is the doomed romance between the salesman and the receptionist. In both versions their budding romance is handled brilliantly; the audience wants them to get together, and wants Pam/Dawn to dump Roy/Lee. In the UK Office, the second series ends on an all time low for all the characters involved; David Brent is fired, and Tim confesses his love, only to be turned down by Dawn. But in the Christmas Special, the two are finally allowed redemption; it feels earned, and a long time coming. A similar arc happens in the US Office; the two fall in and out of love with people we the audience know are wrong for them, but by the end of the 3rd season they are finally allowed to be together, and the two start to date. This is where the problem with the US Office’s love story starts; the show goes on too long for Jim and Pam to never get together, but without that romantic tension, the show definitely loses a dramatic edge. We see attempts to replicate this dynamic with Dwight and Angela, or Michael and Holly, but it’s not quite the same dynamic that worked so well before. FRIENDS knew this was pivotal, and while the Ross/Rachel dynamic is almost comedically long-winded, it’s a solution that works, allowing the show to continue for a long time without removing its most successful dynamic. Parks and Recreation is also so much more successful at sustaining this stuff because none of its characters were built with a will they/won’t they dynamic in mind, and so even when main cast members pair up, it doesn’t lose what made those characters so interesting and engaging.

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I started this essay by attempting to make the point that the US Office isn’t as successful as the UK Office because it’s hindered by being a remake, and I think that this last point should hopefully help to restate that fact. This morning, I was asking myself why I wrote this piece at all. Because while I prefer the UK Office and hope that this essay shows why… I still love the US Office, and I don’t begrudge anyone who thinks it’s the superior version. So I don’t really have anything to prove here.  I guess I can use the same reasoning that I do with all my comedy reviews; that I hope to bring a greater critical appreciation of comedy television. But with this, I think there’s something else I wanted to show. It’s that judging these shows isn’t just a measure of your taste in comedy. I think there’s still valid arguments to be made about the success of these shows that isn’t entirely based around whether cringe comedy is something you find enjoyable. I think both shows deserve to be lauded, and that both can happily co-exist, but it’s worth showing how each show differs, and why I feel one is slightly more successful because it uses its own original idea, while the other has been stopped from reaching its true potential by its nature as a remake.

Persona 5

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Spoilers for the entirety of Persona 5 ahead. The other Persona games are not spoiled in this post.

Persona 5 is a game for Japan. It talks to Japanese people and it was made by Japanese people. It’s set in Japan, and it appears to address issues facing Japan today. I thought I should get this out of the way as quickly as possible, because when looking critically at Persona 5, it’s near impossible to escape the feeling that you just don’t get it. And it would be ethnocentric to assume that Persona 5 should cater to my own, Western-liberal ideas about society. This game is inherently Japanese-liberal, and so, while I cannot ever hope to fully understand it in the same way it was made to be understood by its target audience, I can at least give readers of this review the knowledge of where I’m coming from. With such a deeply political game, I think that’s necessary. That said, let’s jump straight into it.

A playlist of some of my favourite tracks from the game to accompany this post.

The opening act of Persona 5, is, to my mind, a near pitch perfect introduction to the game. Much like many recent JRPGs (Final Fantasy XV and Fire Emblem Awakening spring to mind), the game starts with an in media res action platforming section that simultaneously sets up the thrill of the game’s best moments while also establishing the game’s narrative as a series of flashbacks told in an interrogation room. The interrogation device is there really as a tone setting piece; its implications in the grand narrative are negligible, other than to provide a little clue as to the trick the Phantom Thieves end up playing on Goro Akechi. Once that’s done, you’re placed back in control of Joker, the game’s protagonist; a convict sent to live in Tokyo under the supervision of the grouchy but lovable Soejiro Sakura (it’s here where the Persona 4 comparisons start, but not where they end, sadly). The main conflict of the first act takes place inside Joker’s school; the PE teacher[1] Kamoshida is an exploitative bastard who preys on his female students and abuses his male ones. You know the time is right to stop him when his actions end up causing one student to attempt suicide, and one of your teammates is blackmailed into having sex with him. It’s a dire situation; one that makes Kamoshida perhaps one of the most hatable villains in any game I’ve played in a long time. It’s true that perhaps the game slips up in not naming Kamoshida’s most grievous actions, but that’s only notable because of how well the rest of the arc handles the themes of sexual assault and rape. It’s also a fantastic introduction to the theme of the game, which is ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’.[2] Some have simplified this to simply ‘rebellion’, but I think (most of) the game itself only seeks to deal with this particular aspect of the larger theme of ‘rebellion’. When you reach Kamoshida’s Palace, the game really kicks into high gear; the music is fantastic, the visuals are on point, the battle system is fine tuned Megaten fun and the dungeon itself is hand crafted; a huge step up from the randomly generated maps of previous games. While the puzzles may be simple and the action platforming not at all skill-based, the style that it oozes is good enough for me. The entire opening is incredibly confident and completely won me over. This, I was sure, was my game of the year.

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‘and I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you damn brats and your meddling cat’

Of course, we’re only 656 words into the review, so I’m sure you’ve guessed that it didn’t stay that way. Sadly, you’d be right. The next villain on the Phantom Thieves’ list is world-famous artist Madarame, who steals from and exploits his students, passing their work off as his own. This extends to his latest student Yusuke, who is to become the newest member of the Phantom Thieves. Madarame is simply a step down as a villain from Kamoshida. In stakes, he’s a step up; his brand is world-famous, and the number of people he exploits is far more wide reaching. By the end of the arc, we even find out that Madarame let Yusuke’s mother die, but by this point it’s too late for us to hate Madarame as much as we hated Kamoshida. Stalin was right when he said that ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ As Persona 5 continues, its villains increase in scale, but this lessens their impact as villains. I find it hard to care about all the nameless workers Okumura exploits, but very easy to care about the attempted blackmail of Ann, one of my friends.[3] Of course, in order for the idea of ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’ to advance, the villains must grow in scale. But the game fails to effectively handle this, because we are often robbed of seeing the personal effect of these villains’ actions. We don’t meet an employee of Big Bang Burger and most egregiously we never really see people affected by Kaneshiro’s actions; he’s not even related to Makoto, whose introductory palace this is.

In a game of diminishing returns, it seems likely that Shido, whose evil deeds have the biggest effect on the largest number of people, would be the worst villain in the game. I don’t think that’s quite the case, luckily, but Shido is certainly underwhelming as a final villain. On the personal stakes, at least, he succeeds in being hatable. He has personally wronged us by accusing us of a crime we didn’t commit and has killed Futaba’s mother and Haru’s father, so while he still doesn’t quite reach the level of detestability as Kamoshida, he’s no teddie bear either. But on a grand scale, Shido never quite convinces as the poison for Japan he is meant to represent. Here, by the way, is where it gets tricky discussing this game as a Westerner. The truth is, Japan’s political problems are different from those in England and America. The scandals that Shinzo Abe gets into are certainly different from those of Donald Trump. So I must just remind you that I’m not a scholar on Japanese politics, but that the game focuses so much on them, that I still need to address the subject. Shido is bad for Japan because he is corrupt. He kills people, he has ties with the Yakuza, and he says one thing to the electorate but in fact, he cares nothing for Japan, imagining it as a sinking country where he is one of the few survivors. You could say that this is a similar situation to Abe, who campaigns on vague promises and statements in order to win an election and institute unpopular changes, such as his efforts to change the Japanese constitution to something more militaristic. I’ve seen a great comparison between a poster of Shido found in his palace to a poster of Shinzo Abe, showing that the game does indeed have some political satire and wit.[4] But ultimately, it fails to hit as hard as it could, because the game doesn’t quite have enough to say about politics aside from that corruption is bad and we should be more aware of it. Take the US version of House of Cards; the message there is similarly unclear and slightly without too much of a point behind it. But it does have a worldview to portray; a cynical and exaggerated look at the politicians who lead, and what really motivates them. Shido never really reveals his true ambitions to us. Most of his dialogue is standard evil guy monologues. The game also fails to portray a valid alternative to Shido. There is one obvious candidate for who the developers clearly think is what politics should be about; Toranosuke, a disgraced politician who becomes a fast friend to Joker and the Phantom Thieves. In his confidant story, we can see that he’s someone with integrity and passion, someone who sticks to his beliefs. We can see that this is the sort of politician to gun for. In a way, he becomes the Japanese Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn; not a perfect politician, but someone with a firm belief in their values. Except, of course, that Toranosuke has no values. His speeches are made up of the exact same meaningless platitudes that make up most of Shido’s speeches. Both seem to spout the exact same apolitical, bipartisan garbage about the children being our future and the key to making Japan great again. And yet Persona 5 berates the public for loving one and encourages the public to love the other.[5] I think, that despite making a politician the big bad, Persona 5 doesn’t have much to say about politics. This isn’t automatically a problem per se, because it simply uses politics as a way to explore its bigger themes, but I think it belies a larger lack of depth within Persona 5. [6]

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I think this leads nicely into talking about the game’s main theme. Persona 3 and 4 both had strong central themes explored within the main narrative and the social links. Persona 5 has a good concept for a central theme, but it falters slightly on the execution. I said at the beginning that the theme wasn’t just rebellion, it was more specific than that; that it was actually ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’. Well, here’s where it gets a bit complicated. That’s certainly the theme up until the end of the 7th Palace, at which point the scope widens to become ‘the individual versus conformity’ with the introduction of Yaldabaoth as the God of Control and the final boss. This is a similarly interesting theme, one explored by the Persona series’ main branch, the Shin Megami Tensei series. Those games are all centred around the choice between ‘Law’ (i.e. conformity) and Chaos (i.e. individuality).[7] In those games, the choice is up to you between the two paths. Neither ends in happiness, but both options are available. Persona 5, in the SMT canon, would be a chaos route story; the Phantom Thieves are rebels; first against exploitative authority, and then against conformity. While Shin Megami Tensei games give you the option to choose your path, Persona 5 chooses it for you. This is not a bad thing; Persona 5 has a point to make, and I’m more than happy to go along for the ride. The problem comes because the developers for some reason need to question the actions of their protagonists. Here’s an actual conversation from the game, taken from before Shido’s palace;

Makoto: What we’re about to do is just, right…?
Joker: Choice between (It is.) and (Yes, they’ll see soon).
Morgana: That’s right. Have we ever acted outside the scope of justice?
Makoto: You have a point.

Yikes. Consider the point of that conversation. The game seems to desperately want to appear to be raising some sort of problem with the Phantom Thieves’ actions, but can never bring itself to do it. So, the way I see it, the game has two choices. Firstly would be to ignore the actions of the Thieves altogether and just tell the player that they’re in the right. Secondly would be to properly explore the issue and convince the player that they’re in the right. The game does neither, but could so easily do either. Let’s start with the second option. If only there was already a character in the game that could serve as an ethical opponent of the Phantom Thieves. Maybe one whose role in the story started off that way but became a character that was completely under-utilised and instead used simply as a way to copy a more successful twist from Persona 4… oh wait Goro Akechi. Lots of people have complained about Akechi’s role in the story and I agree with pretty much all the complaints. Akechi has pretty much nothing to do once the twist that he’s been working for Shido is revealed. He turns into a hired gun with daddy issues and an annoyingly placed boss fight. His relation to the protagonist is aiming to be the same as the relationship between the murderer in Persona 4 and Yu (two sides of the same coin), but without the same context and build up from that game, the entire thing falls flat. Before the twist, however, Akechi has promise. He’s also a fighter against injustice, but believes in the rule of law to do so. If he continued in that way, then he could serve as a much better antagonist for the Phantom Thieves. Both are enemies of the injustice of the world, but they are opposed in how they combat it. Then, you can more fully explore the issue of whether what the Thieves do is just. If they just ignored the problem all together, that could also have worked; but the game might need to change its basic mechanics in order to do that. You see, Makoto in that conversation is correct. There is a problem in the actions of the Phantom Thieves. Persona 5 claims to value individualism, but only if you conform to its sense of good. In changing the hearts of villains, the Phantom Thieves strip them of their individuality. So, when I said that Persona 5’s theme was ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’, I think what I mean is that that is what the game’s theme should  have stayed. Persona 5 is not equipped to handle a theme like ‘individual versus conformity’ because its main mechanic of stealing hearts runs counter to that. So, because this has been a slightly complicated paragraph to write and read, I’ll try and sum up. Persona 5 is able to handle a shallow idea like ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’, because there isn’t too much to discuss there. There are predefined good guys and bad guys, and we don’t feel awful about changing a bad guy’s heart in order to stop exploitation and death. But when the game switches gears to hint at the idea of individual versus conformity, or when it hints at it even before the Prison of Regression, we see the inherent contradiction at the heart of Persona 5 – its heart stealing good guys are forcing conformity onto its villains. So Persona 5 cannot handle a deeper theme, even though it wants to. Remember how I said at the end of the politics chapter that Persona 5 has a lack of depth? This is yet another example of it.

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The game has other ways of making it look like it’s saying something deeper than it actually is. Most of this comes in the final hours of the game; The Prison of Regression and the fight against the Holy Grail, who is actually the “God” Yaldaboath playing a game with Igor. I think this section of the game actually does pretty well making its themes and ideas clear. The Prison of Regression is a well done visualisation of the idea of the stranglehold of conformity. Meanwhile, the idea of a God created by the desires of humanity is also a great idea for a final boss in a chapter where the theme focuses on rebellion versus conformity. Even this, however, has its problems. One is still the aforementioned contradiction of the Phantom Thieves’ ability to steal hearts; that it is its own kind of imposed conformity. The other is the creation of Yaldaboath itself. Yes, he is said to have been created by a human will for conformity, but the game falters about how much he has control over humanity. It’s him who is said to create the Prison of Regression; him who talks about his own subjugation of humanity; him who makes the deal with Igor. While he may have been created by humanity, some of that message is robbed of its power when he is talked of at all as autonomous. It’s still much better than Yaldaboath being completely autonomous, and this might seem a bit of a nitpick, but I do take some umbrage with the way that Persona 5 talks about the God of Control. Even that name is contradictory to the point Persona 5 wants to make. Surely ‘The God of Conformity’ or ‘The Created God’ would have been better titles to give it. At the same time, of course, I realise the need for Yaldaboath and Igor to have the ‘game’. That’s because Persona 5 references the myth of the ‘Trickster’.[8] In short, the Trickster is supposed to expose the shadow of man and spur change. It’s all based in myth and examined by Jung (whose influence is felt all over the Persona series) and it’s also much too intellectual for my feeble mind. Neverthelesss, I think that it’s here where the theming of Persona 5 is the strongest. Certainly, this makes sense in a way that spans the entirety of the game; the Phantom Thieves building fame and exposing the shadows of society, until they realise that despite the shadow being bought to the eyes of the people, they reject it, forcing the Phantom Thieves to steal the treasure at the heart of Mementos. But this isn’t something that is really tackled until the end, and it doesn’t explain away all the problems I’ve mentioned before. It’s where Persona 5 feels its most confident, but this confidence is a small part of a 90 hour experience wherein most of its other attempts at theming are less successful.[9]

Ok, so I think that’s most of the heavy stuff done, so let’s move onto what makes a heavy exploration of politics and rebellion tick; the characters. Persona games often develop their main themes within character arcs that can be accessed through confidant links, but Persona 5’s are perhaps my least favourite in the series. Bear in mind that being the lazy games critic that I am, i failed to play every single confidant story, so it could be that actually Shinya Oda’s would have blown me out of the water, but I can’t talk about that, so apologies on that front.[10] Of the 15 that I played (I completed less, of course (this also does not include Igor or Sae’s confidant)), I would say that perhaps 8 included a proper exploration of the theme, which is more than half, but disappointing nonetheless. Of those I did play, the worst is certainly Ann Takamaki’s – a strange exploration of the life of a model that has a disconnect in character between main plot Ann and confidant plot Ann. It also fails to recognise the more interesting story of Ann’s relationship with Shiho. In one particularly frustrating moment Ann and Shiho meet on the roof to discuss Shiho’s recovery, and Ann talks about how she will improve as a model for some reason I can’t quite figure out, but she seems to believe it will help Shiho… this entire confident story is a complete mess, so I’m not going to try and work out what they were aiming for, but its appearance in a game that’s had so much time and energy put into it is certainly disappointing. Other confidant stories similarly miss the mark. Makoto’s social link focuses mainly on a dilemma facing her friend, a character who is never properly fleshed out, or even given an illustration. Meanwhile, more interesting aspects of Makoto’s character such as her relationship to her deceased father, and her struggling with her sister’s high expectations for her, are only touched upon briefly. A few confidant stories I really liked are also present; Tae Takemi’s has a smaller stakes story about an abuse of power within the medical system, and Hifumi Togo’s story deals with the pressure of being a model far better than Ann’s; while also adopting the parental pressure to succeed story from Makoto. When talking about the characters, clearly the most important are the Phantom Thieves themselves. It’s them who we play as, and them who we’re clearly meant to bond with the most. Sadly, the Phantom Thieves have a team-building problem. These guys feel much more like a group of workplace proximity associates than friends. Sure, in their individual social links you feel like a friend, but together the team fails to gel. Characters really only get to shine during their individual arcs – once those are done they’re reduced to one-liners.[11] Haru loses her father over the course of the game, but by the end I imagine you’d have forgotten that. She doesn’t really seem to be all to phased by it, and this is true of every character. No matter what they’ve been through, by the end they’ve all become one-note. The opportunities for team-building are there; the Hawaii trip becomes a bit of a missed opportunity by relating most of your time to be spent with your romantic partner of choice, but where the game misses the mark most is in the text conversations. These read less like a group chat and more like an email chain between a bunch of very repetitive colleagues. No one ever has fun in these text chats; there are no funny photos sent between friends, or just casual conversation. It’s all the same stuff we’ve heard before and during every palace; ‘do you think this will work??’ ‘No idea, we’ll just have to wait and see’, repeated ad nauseam. Sure, some found the long goofball sections in Persona 4 boring and longed for the plot to continue, but this is why the text message system would have been such a good solution to this. Alas. The writing as a whole in this game is pretty dire. Everything is much too long, too repetitive and often poorly translated.[12] Once again, most of these cracks start to show themselves as the game continues. This, of course, isn’t a problem with depth. Instead, it’s part of a related problem Persona 5 suffers from; length.

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But before we move off the topic of characters completely, I think it’s worth giving a shout out to the returning feature of romance-able characters. As always, half of Persona concerns living the daily life of a teen, and that includes romancing your fellow classmates.[13] Starting a relationship in Persona 5 comes with a creepy new twist this time around; you can now choose to date some of the hard done by adults that make up some of your social links; including your teacher Kawakami. I don’t think this is a simple issue to address; I think this article (http://kotaku.com/persona-5s-sexual-relationships-can-get-complicated-1794282996) has a better stab at it than I could, but it certainly made me feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in how these women all seem to be at the lowest point in their lives. The issue of dating those older than you is a complex one, however; what isn’t complex is how dated Persona 5’s other sexual politics are. For a game about rebellion against social norms, for instance, why can’t I make my character be gay? Persona 5 has a member of the Phantom Thieves (artist Yusuke) be strongly hinted to be homosexual, but never allows you to take your relationship with him further than platonic. What’s worse is that the only other gay characters that show up are both perverted old men played for laughs. I’ve heard arguments that these men aren’t meant to be the be all and end all of gay people, and that judging them as such would be the equivalent of saying Persona 5 sees all straight men like it sees the rapist Kamoshida. But Persona 5 is filled with shining examples of straight men, and only 2 examples of openly homosexual men, both of whom are perverted gay stereotypes who prey on the main character and Ryuji. This is probably also a good point to mention how Persona 5 treats its female characters. Both Ann and Hifumi have confidant links involving a career as a model, while Kawakami’s involves her dressed up as a maid and calling you ‘Master’. Taken on their own, these wouldn’t be a problem; Japanese teen idols are incredibly popular, as are maid services. But Persona 5 has other slightly problematic portrayals of women. Only one of the Palace bosses is a woman, but she’s also the only one who isn’t really evil; she too is a victim of the system. In Persona’s world only men ever have the power to be able to exploit. Special mention should also be given to Ann’s Phantom Thief outfit, which blurs the line of good taste. Of course, she’s based off of the Femme Fatale character, but her poses and outfits seems more geared towards making the player stand to attention than putting the enemies off guard. I think any rebuttal to this argument can be put to bed by simply showing off her defeated pose, which is frankly embarrassing.

I notice I haven’t really talked much about the gameplay yet, so let’s make that the final topic of conversation. As always in Persona games, gameplay is split between dungeon crawling and living out the normal life of a Japanese teenager. Let’s start with the dungeon crawling aspect, seeing as its been given the biggest change since Persona 4. The battle system remains pretty similar; still fashioned in the mould of the post-Nocturne press-turn based gameplay. Some problems remain; such as the faults of the SP system that can be too easily broken[14], and the few unfair bits of palace design.[15] The palaces themselves are clearly a step up from the randomly generated dungeons of yesteryear, but they are also slightly too streamlined. Almost every puzzle you encounter is explained to you multiple times, which often takes the joy out of solving them for yourself. Worse, the game still thrusts you into Mementos, which are, to all extents and purposes the same randomised dungeon crawling that Persona 5 initially appears to have left behind. It just feels regressive, and makes going through Mementos more like a necessary chore than a pleasure. I know I said I was done with thematic discussions, but it’s worth mentioning that Palaces lack the internal logic of previous games’ dungeons. Every time the game wants something unexpected to happen, they can do it with the only explanation being that no one really knows about what’s going on so just suspend your disbelief and roll with it. This isn’t a huge complaint, but every time something happened that seemed unexplainable within a cognitive world, I found myself wishing for some kind of internal logic; especially when the game tries to fit itself into the heist genre, a genre which requires the viewer to know exactly what’s going on in order to appreciate the clever tricks the heroes pull. The out-of palace gameplay, however, really impressed me. It’s not too big a change from the activities found in previous games, but I was interested to see how they’d handle a city setting, myself being an inhabitant of a large city. The answer is; surprisingly well. Instead of creating an open world that would have always felt too small, you mainly travel in the same set of streets and locations. Because, of course, that’s how real life in a city works; you spend most of your time in the same few streets, and rarely go beyond the same couple of  destinations, except with friends. Aside from the texting problem, I think technology is handled very well in this game. You don’t often notice this, but being set in the 2010s this game had to recognise the importance of technology in the life of an everyday teen. Of special note are the surprisingly numerous number of internet posts on the Phantom Thief chatroom, that emulate internet speech much better than they have any right to.

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In amongst the gameplay lies the game’s fantastic visual design. This is a real treat to behold. It really speaks to my aesthetic sensibilities and is extremely fluid and stylish. I especially appreciate the way the main menu moves around, with Joker shifting into different poses depending on the option. I can understand that for some it feels a bit busy, but for me, it just works. That said, like the smooth and stylish jazz infused rock soundtrack, it does get old after 100+ hours of play. As much as I love the work of Shoji Meguro, when you’re still hearing the exact same 30 seconds of battle music 90 hours in, no matter how great the track is, you get sick of it. In fact, just so that I could avoid this problem, I bought one of the overpriced DLC tracks just to hear a different tune during the casino palace.[16] I think that it’s actually here we get to the heart of the issue, so let’s finally wrap up this review.

Persona 5 is a long game. A very long game. Being long isn’t by itself a problem. Lots of good games are long, including previous Persona games. But here’s the problem; Persona 5 is both longer than Persona 4, and has less to say. When you subject someone to a plot for that long, you have to have a plot worth spending that much time over. But as I hope I’ve already proven, Persona 5 is, for the most part, shallow. It values style over substance, which is a problem only when it’s this long and the style never changes. Persona 5 is still a fantastic game, brimming with smart design decisions and an enjoyable story. Some of its thematic devices work much better than others. But when it goes on so long, it invites you to peek beneath the surface; to think about its overall themes and the nuances of its story… and that’s when you find that actually, there’s not that much there.

Or maybe I’m just an ‘effin adult who doesn’t get it.


[1] ‘Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.’

[2] Of course, the game seeks to undermine my definition of its theme by calling all the villains ‘shitty adults’, but judging by the number of confidant links that show how adults are also held down by the system and those in power, I think the game merely does itself a disservice by having Ryuji simplify the message into ‘kids rule, adults drool’.

[3] This could be a cultural problem; karōshi (lit. death from overwork) is something that affects more people in Japan than in the West; it’s possible that the Okumura plot line works much better if you know someone who is a victim of an exploitative work environment. That said, the overall point of villains being more effective if they’re closer to you still stands.

[4] http://www.usgamer.net/articles/the-real-world-problems-behind-persona-5

[5] I’d love to give the game credit and say that the reason that both Shido and Toranosuke have similar speeches is because it’s message is cynical and anti-political, but judging from Toranosuke’s storyline I hesitate to give it that much credit.

[6] Bear in mind that this is all explicitly a problem with the English translation of Persona 5. For all I know, the Japanese version is more explicit in its political theming.

[7] As well as a neutral path, but that’s not really relevant here.

[8] For a more detailed and excellent write-up on this point, please see this series of reddit posts https://www.reddit.com/r/Megaten/comments/6ktsch /the_rebellion_concept_in_persona_5_part_four/

[9] I want to move on now, but something I failed to mention is the idea of the 8 Evil Thoughts represented by the 8 Palaces in the game. I think this idea has some potential, but it’s only really explored in the names of the trophies. The correspondence of each palace to its deadly sin is shaky at best; Sloth is attributed in the game to Mementos, but could also work for Madarame, who leeches off the work of others, or even Futaba, who hides in laziness rather than face her problems etc. So, the idea is strong, but the execution is lacking.

[10] It’s probably not a great sign that I’m having to do so much apologising and qualifying within this review lol

[11] Especially if you’re Ryuji.

[12] http://www.personaproblems.com/ This website is really good..

[13] Unless you’re me when I was at school

[14] With the Kawakami confidant and the Sojiro confidant you can make an SP restoring coffee most nights, and with the Tae Takemi confidant you have access to SP restoring patches that grant small boosts in SP after each move.

[15] I’m going to sound like a whiner if I put this all in the main text so I’ll relegate it down here; Akechi’s boss fight is awfully placed – Here’s the thing; it’s not necessarily annoying because it’s difficult, it’s also annoying because it’s always a sacrifice of a more interesting fight. If you knew beforehand that there would be two bosses to fight, then you’d approach the first one in a more conservative and thoughtful manner, which always leads to a more interesting fight. But by not telling you this, you’re basically screwed if you did what was the natural thing to do and go all out on a difficult boss – so punishing the player for doing what comes naturally to them. Which is just kinda shitty. The problem is that loads of RPGs do this, but it’s just an artificial and annoying way to boost difficulty that’s become normalised as a standard in the genre. Also when you get spotted by an enemy, often another one spawns in front that takes you by surprise, but I was never 100% sure what triggered this to happen, and it would often happen in tight corridors or places you couldn’t easily escape from. Combined with an enemy that can inflict despair on all party members and it becomes too high a punishment for being spotted.

[16] Maybe that was their plan all along.

 

😱

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I didn’t really want to review The Emoji Movie, because reviewing it meant watching it, and watching it meant a) supporting Sony to make more of this kind of film in the future, and b) spending 2 hours of my life watching a kids film about emoji. And then a good friend of mine (@thesoulminded (check him out, his stuff is great)) tweeted this ‘Dear Grown Ass Adults watching the Emoji Movie and complaining on the news. Stop. No one told you to watch a movie for kids.’ To me, this is a real miscalculation about why people don’t like the Emoji Movie. It’s not so much that they’re upset that it’s bad; clearly a film based on Emoji wasn’t going to revolutionise the world.[1] The problem is more this; The Emoji Movie is the kind of movie a bad guy in a children’s cartoon would make; it’s cynical, manipulative, contradictory and frankly terrible for its target market.

The Emoji Movie centres on the life of an emoji named Gene, who is a ‘Meh’ emoji; a malfunction means that he can express different emotions, so he tries to get this fixed with the help of a hacker named Jailbreak, and a High-Five emoji named… uhh.. Hi-5. As you can imagine, the film ends with him realising it’s fine to express himself in ways other than ‘meh’. To be frank, the plot of this film is fine; standard unimaginative crap, but fine nonetheless. Where the problems start to appear is everything around the plot. For example; the film is so deprived of original ideas that it steals from just about everywhere, most notably the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out (which, not coincidentally had just come out when this film was commissioned.) In that film, the main characters, who represent emotions, travel inside the mind of a teenage girl as she struggles with a family crisis and the onset of puberty. Because it’s structured inside the mind, many of the inventive worlds etc make sense; her ‘control room’ is her brain where memories are kept, while the islands the main characters travel around depict facets of her personality. In the Emoji Movie, the action takes place within the phone of a teenage boy. The emoji all line up within a grid and there are selected, at which point they’re scanned and have to pull the face they represent. At one point within the movie, the scanning is implied to feel akin to an orgasm. The process is amazingly and stupidly complex, and it just goes to show how hard the writers must have had to work in order to create what must have been pitched ‘Inside Out with Emoji’. The internal logic of this film is all messed up anyway; trolls are reduced from actual harassers to a kind of computer virus installed on your phone, ridding them of any serious presence, despite the actual threat they pose to many young people on the internet. Youtube is also on here; showing actual videos like Pen Pineapple Apple Pen (hey, remember that?), even though the film takes place in an animated universe.

Instead of travelling through facets of personality as in Inside Out, the Emoji travel through iPhone apps. This is not used as a way to explore what the apps on the phone of a teenage boy tell us about his personality; instead, it’s used as a way to sell apps to us. Sure, “Grown Ass Adults” may be able to shrug this off, but lest we forget that this film is targeted towards the more gullible. The Just Dance app (advertised in the film) has subscription packs up to £18.99, as well as Coin packs up to £4.99. WeChat, a Chinese messaging app hoping to spread its influence overseas, has sticker packs advertised in the film, costing £0.99 each. I needn’t mention Candy Crush’s infamous In App Purchases, but needless to say, they can be costly. Dropbox, which is inexplicably advertised in a film targeted to children around the age of 8, has a ‘Dropbox Plus’ subscription service that costs £79.99 per year. Spotify Premium can go up to £17.99 a month. Apps such as Facebook and Instagram have both age limits of 13 (by which point most children would be too embarrassed to go and see this film), and are inundated with targeted advertisements. The Emoji Movie goes out of its way to advertise these apps without putting them in much story context at all. It’s simply an advertisement selling children apps. Well, you might say, so was the Lego Movie, and you love that film. Sure – that’s fair enough. So let’s talk about the other problem with the Emoji Movie; everything else.

 

The Lego Movie has a pretty good message to do with creativity. The Emoji Movie has a message about being yourself and not sticking to one single emotion. TJ Miller portrays the ‘meh’ emoji, who is supposed to be a bundle of different emoji forced by a cruel society to portray one face for the rest of his life. In reality, he’s as one-note as the rest; that note just happens to be white bread enthusiasm. In the end, he debuts as a brand new shapeshifting emoji, but none of the other emoji ever get to express themselves; TJ Miller is the only one special enough to express himself. Even Jailbreak, the hacker who doesn’t want to be a princess and so disguises herself, ends up by the end of the film having shed her hacker persona. She isn’t allowed to be herself; only he is. Speaking of Jailbreak, the film would love to see itself as spreading a feminism message, and while it’s true that it pays lip service to these ideas by having her reject her role as princess… by the end of the film she’s sacrificing her dream to follow some guy she only just met into certain death. So yay feminism!

Ugh I don’t really know. I could go on with all of the dumb shit this film does; that Patrick Stewart is used for a couple of poop jokes and a Star Trek reference; that the best emoji (pager) never shows up; that the film somehow made James Corden even more annoying than he already is; that the line ‘throw some sauce on that dance burrito’ is spoken by someone who starred in the amazing comedy show Silicon Valley; that the confession of love from the teenage boy to his crush ends with a line from Rihanna’s song Diamonds and that this is played as an emotional moment… but I’m not even that angry at the film. It’s stupid and dumb, and mildly evil… but I am angry at anyone who tries to just say ‘ah, lay off it – it’s just a kids film’. Because that presupposes that kids films shouldn’t be great; that the hundreds of people who worked on the Emoji Movie don’t deserve proper criticism for their hard work; that we should be fine with this sort of cynical advertisement to young people that insults their intelligence and sells them a confused moral message and a bunch of shit apps. Fuck that.

My next proper review is coming in a few days, but just had to jump on that emoji movie trend uhhh… get my important point across. 

[1]  That said, a film about Lego did end up being one of the best animated movies in a long while sooo…

 

The Best Games on the 3DS

I wasn’t expecting this to be the post for this month, but Persona 5 has ended up taking much longer than I expected to play through and gather my notes on, so this will have to serve to tide me over until then. Despite the success of Nintendo’s most recent portable console, the Switch, I find myself still being drawn to my 3DS. This might be because of the lack of games on the Switch now that I’ve finished saving Hyrule, but it’s also because of the remarkable staying power of the 3DS, which might be the greatest portable console ever made. So, to reflect on the 3DS’ remarkable lifespan, here is a short list of my favourite exclusive games for the console, in no particular order.

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Attack of the Friday Monsters

You might never have heard of this game, and that’s a damn shame, but probably completely reasonable. Released as part of a compilation of experimental games on the e-shop by Level 5, Attack of the Friday Monsters puts you in the shoes of the young boy Sohta, who lives in a small Japanese town. There, every Friday, giant monsters battle it out while the residents look on. Or do they? The game never deigns to answer this question, because it doesn’t matter. It provides a variety of interpretations to its titular question, but never wants to distract you too much from the meat of the game. This is a day in the life of Sohta, running errands throughout the Ghibli-esque town, meeting its residents and solving their various problems. It’s a game fuelled by Sohta’s childlike imagination, which makes him a somewhat unreliable narrator, but allowing yourself to get swept into his world creates the sort of nostalgic feelings for someone else’s childhood that only a few rare games and films manage to achieve. There’s also some vague tacked on gameplay in the form of a clever little card game, but it never outstays it’s welcome. The same cannot be said for the game itself, which could really do with a bit more meat on its bones. It humbly finishes up its story within a few hours, but it needn’t. The amount of times I’ve replayed this game speaks volumes to the amount of time that we could have spent in Sohta’s world.

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Shin Megami Tensei IV

The contrast between the tone of AotFM and SMTIV couldn’t be starker. AotFM plays out in a small, idyllic Japanese suburb. SMTIV spends half of its time in the feudal land of Mikado, controlled by a strange religious leader and populated by subjugated masses who long for their slim chance to join the upper classes. The other half takes place in the somehow even more depressing post-apocalyptic Tokyo, where most of the population has moved underground in order to escape a ravenous demon horde who are only partly controlled by a faction of the Yakuza. You play as a Samurai of Mikado, a warrior trained to battle demons, but your quest to find the mysterious ‘Black Samurai’, who is corrupting the minds of the Mikado peasants leads you to some unfortunate realisations about the world you live in. Like other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, the story splits into three routes; Law, Chaos and Neutral, and none of them here have much of an uplifting ending. But SMTIV remains engaging despite this, although the plot is only half the fun.

I’ve seen some people criticise the ‘shallow’ characters of SMTIV, but I don’t think that gives them enough credit. I wasn’t ever blown away by the writing, but it has a certain subtlety to it (at least as subtle as SMT can get), and the plot itself, while slow paced, has enough intrigue in it to carry you through. What makes SMT games really stand out, however, is the turn based battle system. SMTIII pioneered the ‘press-turn’ system, which Persona players will be familiar with, which allows you to exploit enemy weaknesses for an extra turn in battle. Of course, enemies can exploit this as well, which can turn battles into either satisfying chains of attacks that don’t allow the enemy to get a move in edgeways, or frustratingly watching as you watch your team get decimated by a threatening boss. The enemies you fight in SMT are demons, who you can collect Pokemon style through an annoyingly obtuse and random negotiation system, and fuse together to make stronger demons. SMTIV offers the best fusing method of the series, giving you helpful recommendations while still allowing customization.

I don’t think SMTIV is a perfect experience, but the benefits of it being on a handheld, combined with an engaging story and refined battle system make it my favourite SMT game that I’ve played (although Persona 5 is certainly edging closer), and I thoroughly recommend it as a starting point for the series.

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Spirit of Justice/DGS

I’m a huge fan of the Ace Attorney franchise, and while I would love to put the amazing Ace Attorney Trilogy on this list (which is better than both of these games), it’s not a 3DS exclusive, and I have standards while making these lists (I can only assume). I’ve written full reviews of both Spirit of Justice and Dai Gyakuten Saiban, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will provide a brief spoiler free rundown of what to expect. Ace Attorney is a series about crime solving lawyers, and Spirit of Justice is simply the sixth game in the series, this one involving the spikey haired protagonist Phoenix Wright travelling to the mysterious land of Khura’in for more crime solving adventures. I would recommend playing the previous 5 games in the series before this one, and I’m sure you’ll not regret playing four of them.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban has much less baggage to it, but at the moment is sadly only available in Japanese. This spin-off title takes place in Victorian London, and is notably written by the author of the original trilogy. Most people will have to wait for the upcoming fan translation to get a taste of this one, but for those who speak Japanese, or don’t mind watching a subtitled play through on Youtube, those options are also available.

Basically this entry was a cheat to tell you to play the Ace Attorney Trilogy on 3DS/DS, but my over-reliance on arbitrary rules that I imposed on myself prevents me from doing that.

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A Link Between Worlds

This and the next entry are the only two non-eshop exclusive titles on this list, although what this says about my taste in games you’ll have to work out for myself. Link Between Worlds is one of the best Zelda games out there, and certainly the best top down Zelda there is. Purists might argue in favour of the original Link to the Past, but those that do are clearly stuck in said past. A Link Between Worlds revisits the Hyrule of A Link to the Past, but adds an extremely clever new puzzle solving mechanic in wall merging. The way this changes up the game is staggering – it allows for so much free form exploration and puzzle solving that it’s almost comparable to the introduction of climbing in Breath of the Wild.

The other way in which this game influenced Breath of the Wild is in its non-linearity. Where A Link to the Past gave you numbered checklists of dungeons to visit, Link Between Worlds lets you rent out items to access specific dungeons and tackle them in whatever order you want, while still being able to stagger the difficulty through splitting up the dungeons into sets. It’s also a lot faster paced than any 3D Zelda, and perhaps any 2D Zelda, with item swapping on the fly thanks to the 3DS touchscreen, combat and exploration are all seamless and feels natural. Think of this as the proto-Breath of the Wild for those who want a top-down Zelda experience.

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Kid Icarus Uprising

 Remember how maligned the controls in this game were when it first released? Sakurai himself clearly had so little faith in them that he had to include a stand with boxed copies of the game. I really hope that didn’t put anyone off Kid Icarus Uprising, because it’s such a joy to play that it’d be a real shame to miss. Freed from the shackles of Smash Bros, game director Sakurai was able to create a game that’s half incredibly entertaining on-rails shooter and half slightly less entertaining but still fun 3rd Person Action Adventure game. What bolsters the game past simply entertaining is a quality story with great voice acting and writing, and a fuck ton of content.

The writing present in KI:U is surprisingly good. It has the annoying traits of being self-aware, but never reaches the actual point of annoyance by carefully treading the line. Some characters are obvious stand-outs, such as Hades, but the core cast is an enjoyable group of people to have whisper sweet one-liners into your ear while you play. Much like Smash Bros, Sakurai has stuffed the game to the brim with optional extra modes, some of which are pointless, yet amusing (such as a mode where you pay money to have a character walk slowly towards you), and some are extremely complex, such as the weapon fusing system. The game also employs one of the cleverest approaches to difficulty I’ve ever seen; asking you to gamble more currency on higher difficulties for the chance of greater rewards and treasure. One of the stand outs of the 3DS’ early library that continues to stand tall.

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Box Boy

I don’t really have much to say about BoxBoy, the small title from Hal Laboratory, creators of Kirby. It’s extremely simple; you are a Box, who can produce more boxes from his body. You then have to use those boxes to solve simple puzzles. It’s sort of like if you crossed a standard 2D platformer with Tetris, and it’s absolutely genius. It’s one of those rare games that I feel will be used to teach the basics of good game design for years to come. An extremely simple mechanic pushed to its limits during the course of the campaign, and then pushed even further in bonus levels, some of which become properly difficult to solve. Two sequels would add on a few extra boxes and mechanics, but the original remains a brilliant example of pure game design at its best.

Review: The Final Season

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This review contains massive spoilers for the final season of Review, and all the proceeding seasons. I urge you to watch the show (it’s only 3 seasons) before reading any further. You won’t regret it.

Review isn’t, at its core, about reviewing things. Sure, that forms the basis for the life work of ‘life reviewer’ Forrest MacNeil, but it is his life and his actions that the show primarily concerns itself with. It is a character study of a deeply fucked up man and his undying allegiance to a TV show. That said, to say Review doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about the job of a critic would also be to miss something. I think the latter two reviews in Locorito, Pet Euthanasia, Dream prove as much. In Review, Forrest constantly interprets the reviews he’s given according to his own desires. He interprets the review ‘what’s it like to put a pet to sleep’ metaphorically, refusing AJ’s suggestion to sing a cat a lullaby and instead giving it its standard definition; killing a domesticated animal. However, in the very next review of ‘what’s it like to live your dream?’, as if unable to give himself a single happy review, he interprets it literally and reviews recreating a dream he has while asleep. Review recognises that critics bring something of themselves to reviews; us critics (and I realise I’m tooting my own horn calling myself a critic) always bring our own experiences and tastes to what we review. The show Review, for example, is perhaps my favourite tv show ever made, and as such I may ignore any flaws it may have (similarly, when playing games or watching films in a series or by a director whose work I enjoy, I tend to be more lenient). Similarly, our experience of something will be heavily influenced by the conditions in which we experience it. Review pumps both these factors up to 11; when interpreting the review, it seems to only be in a way that will bring him the most misfortune, and when giving the final score, his personal experience is king, with no regard for finding any universal meaning in his reviews. I hope, that in reviewing the final season of Review I can aim to find some justification for why I regard this show to be one of the greatest TV shows I have seen in my TV-watching experience (which, at least in regard to comedies, is embarrassingly large). If, however, this review descends into unadulterated gushing, you’ll just have to bear with me.

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I was initially planning this post as a sort of ‘Review retrospective’, covering all three seasons. However, the final season alone deserves special praise for the way it finishes up Forrest’s saga, and I feel that in talking about this season I can properly express why I love the whole show as much as I do. Let’s start by talking about the first episode of the season; Locorito, Pet Euthanasia, Dream. The first review here is not too much more than a funny premise, but it also introduces some important details. The first is, of course, that although Forrest thinks of himself as some sort of academic, he’s simply a TV host, and here he is, having been saved from the brink of death, having to do some good ol’ product placement. Of course, he can never call any of his reviews frivolous or unnecessary. He’s already destroyed his life enough for the show that to invalidate one suggestion would open too many troublesome trains of thought for Forrest. The second, more minor detail, is that the review comes from a 6 month old, now defunct fast food chain, foreshadowing the lack of reviews caused by the severe decrease in viewership. All three of the reviews in the first episode, it’s worth noting, serve to re-introduce the viewer to Review by rehashing some of the key ideas from earlier episodes. Locorito follows the ‘simple review becomes needlessly complicated’ model; reminiscent of something like ‘Rowboat’ from season 2. (There’s also the idea of Forrest getting involved in a court proceeding while in a Review, an idea visited in ‘Being Batman’ and ‘Helen Keller’.) Pet Euthanasia, meanwhile, has echoes of ‘Quitting your job’ – Forrest getting too attached to something in a Review, but tragic inevitability means that you know the horrible ending to come. I’m not sure Pet Euthanasia has the sting of ‘Quitting your job’, maybe because it’s only Forrest who’s hurt at the end of it all, or because he is spared having to kill Beyonce, the more obviously tragic outcome. The sly glimpse of Grant though, is perhaps important in reminding viewers what a slimy bastard he is. He knows before Forrest, or the viewer, does the outcome of putting the lizards together, and he revels in it. The final review in this episode is ‘Dream’, which is a ‘Forrest misinterprets the review’ skit à la ‘Sleeping with your teacher’ or ‘William Tell’. ‘Dream’ serves the express purpose of reintroducing the viewer to Forrest’s relationship with Suzanne, which will play a huge role in the finale. That Forrest rents Grant’s garage is another funny detail that again reasserts Grant’s antipathy to Forrest. The first episode, then, re-treads a lot of old ground; it is a reintroduction to Review, but one that becomes necessary when viewed in light of the finale.

The second episode, Co-host, Ass Slap, Helen Keller, Forgiveness, is much more vital in its job of setting up for the finale. ‘Co-Host’, of course, teaches Forrest how to use AJ’s tablet, but more importantly than that, it allows the viewer to see the importance of Review in Forrest’s life. I’ll quote here from Emily Stevens, who writes ‘Looking around A.J.’s cheerful, happy dressing room, Forrest remarks on what a small role the show plays in her life. From that, he doesn’t conclude that her life is enviably full, but that it’s empty and insignificant—because without Review propping him up, Forrest is empty and insignificant.’ (Source) Forrest is a man who has become absorbed by his work over the past 2 seasons of Review, and Susanne herself remarks on this in ‘Forgiveness’; she tells him he used to do things for fun, whereas now everything is for the show. In the finale, Forrest’s dependence on the show is what will allow Grant to manipulate him into the Veto, but this segment gives the viewer the information that we need to understand just how committed he is. He believes himself to be an intellectual, and seeing his vision destroyed by AJ is painful to him. His belief is so strong, it even allows him to be completely selfish, talking directly over AJ’s voiceover (ironically in which she learns much more than he does, despite not actually doing the review). In ‘Helen Keller’, we finally get the resolution of the murder trial, dismissed in the unexpected way consistent of the show. Still, the moment Forrest’s inept lawyer calls Helen to the stand is horrifically hilarious, in that classic Review fashion. ‘Forgiveness’, however, carries on the main theme of the episode; that of Forrest’s selfishness. He goes to Suzanne for the show, and the same can be said of Grant. He doesn’t do it for them, but for the show, which, as mentioned, has absorbed his life in a way as to be synonymous with Forrest. There’s another aspect to the show that is touched upon in this season, and this review; that Forrest calls Review and it’s mysterious selection process; ‘The hand of the universe’. His blind faith in the show and it’s absorption into his personality is one aspect of what makes him such a twisted human being, but this has given him a blind faith in its ‘powers’. Although not perhaps religious, Forrest worships the show, and it is this that has allowed it to so easily consume him. I don’t think the show is making a point about religion (Andy Daly himself has shot down the theory that it is a retelling of the Job story), but the parallels are certainly useful in helping understand the twisted mind of Forrest MacNeil.

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And so we come to the finale. Cryptically titled ‘Cryogenics, Lightning, Last Review’ (perhaps the only time in the series history wherein the name of a review is not mentioned in the title (unless you count the mini-reviews from ‘giving six stars’ (this interruption was pointless))), this might be one of my new favourite episodes. I don’t think anything can top the 1,2 punch of ‘Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes’, but this certainly came close in terms of delivering a huge emotional gut punch. Forrest is likely spurred onto reviewing ‘Cryogenics’ by AJ saying ‘if I were you, I wouldn’t do it.’ Still desperate to regain his own perception of his work as important, Forrest now must do it, if only because AJ wouldn’t. This effect is sadly repeated after the revelations of ‘Cryogenics’ when AJ suggests a Veto to ‘Lightning’. The review of ‘Lightning’ is perhaps a bit poorly paced, but it only really needs to do two things. The first is the sight gag of Josh crushed under the lightning pole. The second is that Forrest does the review in the first place. The revelation he has in ‘Cryogenics’ is there, but AJ’s comments lead him to the wrong conclusion. While the answer is obvious to us that he should stop doing (at the very least) life-threatening reviews, he stretches the interpretation to allow him to continue with the show. It might be doubtful if Forrest believes that it really is the correct conclusion to draw; that it was putting himself in harm’s way that allowed him to get to one revelation, and doing it again will lead to another revelation. However, at this point it’s already too late. A long time ago Forrest dug in his heels to the show and now he cannot get out. He is trapped in a prison of his own making; a fervent belief that the show is ‘fate’ and will guide him correctly, and the absence of anything to fall back on (which can probably be traced back to his review of Divorce). And so Suzanne pulls out her trump card. She offers him an escape, which is to leave Review and come back to her. This is the natural end to Forrest’s story; a man who has lost everything because of his tragic flaw (in this case, the show), is allowed everything back. It’s a story of redemption. But I think two things prevent Forrest from being allowed back into Suzanne’s arms. The first is that along the way, Forrest has made enemies of a number of people, but none more so than his producer Grant. And Grant knows exactly how to push Forrest’s buttons. Grant is the one man who can tempt Forrest MacNeil back into Review, because, in a way, Grant has helped to create Forrest MacNeil, by helping pushing him ever further into the maw of Review right at the very beginning (remember that his first appearance was pushing Forrest to complete the review of Pancakes). But the more tragic reason Forrest cannot accept Suzanne’s review is because he’s already too far gone. Even without Grant, he would probably have reached the same conclusion, because by this point, Forrest MacNeil has risked everything for the project that he believes to be his intellectual life work, and he cannot let that go. And so he doesn’t. But, in the tragic twist of fate that is classic Review, the show betrays him. Were Review to simply be cancelled without the review of ‘What’s it like to be pranked?’ it would be tragic. I have no doubt that Forrest would kill himself as he threatens to do. But the writers of Review have it in for Forrest in the worst way, and so the show ends with probably the darkest ending of any TV show I’ve seen. The creator of the original Australian Review chimes in to ask Forrest ‘what’s it like to be pranked?’, and in such huge denial of the truth, Forrest is able to cling onto the only thing that gives his life meaning even though we, the viewer, knows that it’s gone. The ultimate dramatic irony. When Forrest realises that Review is, in fact, over, he may well kill himself. But to show us that is too much. Review is crueller than that, and leaves his awful fate to our imagination (it’s always worse when it’s implied). I guess the question every viewer has to answer is ‘Did Forrest deserve better?’. I can’t answer that for you, but I’m sure, as I do, you have your own answer for that. However, what is clear is that the Forrest at the start of Review did not deserve this. From the first episode onwards, we see the slow descent of a man from someone with a full life to someone with absolutely nothing. This descent is what is at the heart of Review.

I think the third season of Review manages to wrap up the show admirably. Each segment plays a part in contributing to the ending, which sends off Forrest MacNeil in one of the darkest ways possible. Hopefully in giving a bit of thought to why this season works, I have been able to put a small glimpse of an idea as to why I love the show so much. It’s a masterful tragicomedy. Both the comedic elements and the tragic core work off each other – both need to be excellent in order for the show to succeed, and, in my eyes, it works exceedingly well. Review is destined for cult classic status, but it should be recognised worldwide for the masterpiece that it is.