The Starship Damrey

“This game contains no tutorials or explanations. Part of the experience is to discover things for yourself” Disclaimer before starting The Starship Damrey.

The last time I looked at the GUILD series was to wax lyrical about Attack of the Friday Monsters, a game I thought would never have been made in the way it was were it not for the funding and support of Level-5. With their help, creator Kaz Ayabe was able to create a game that he wanted to, and it was a near-unqualified success. But while that game exemplifies the highs of the GUILD experiment, The Starship Damrey shows that not all projects of this nature are created equal.

The start of the game shows a lot of promise, because of the disclaimer quoted above. For those not in the know, The Starship Damrey is a horror-adventure game, and starting one of those by promising the ultimate obscurity is a really good beginning. Here, you might think, is the start of another small, creatively-fulfilling premise. Sadly, this is not to be the case. The game opens with the main character awake in a cryo-stasis pod, with a few simple commands at your service; you can turn on and off the lights, unsuccessfully attempt to open the hatch, and boot up the computer. Within the first few seconds of booting up the computer, the game tells you exactly how to do boot-up system works. An inconsistent follow-through on its own premise will become a crucial theme of the game’s failure.

Eventually, through the computer you’re able to take control of a robot to guide you through the ship. Controlling the robot is similar to an old-school dungeon crawler; you can turn in four directions and go forward or back. The problem, of course, is that this style of gameplay is pretty outdated for a reason; it’s slow and clunky and the robot’s lethargic turn cycle does little to aid this.

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The game is filled with “spooky” darkened rooms and corridors, and so the robot’s field of view is further constrained by the tiny torch light you’re given. Exploration of the surrounding area is encouraged, because you’re asked to both find items scattered on the ground, as well as exterminate “space leeches”, tiny sprites that litter the floors and walls. In order to free the robot’s view, you have to press the A button, then move the D-pad around while standing still. Halfway through the game, I realised that pressing the A button was an unnecessary step because simply moving the analogue stick would do the job for you, but because the game “contains no explanations or tutorials”, I was stuck playing it in a slightly tedious way. It’s not a game changer, but instead just a way in which the premise turns into an annoyance rather than a cool feature. When the game can’t teach you its own mechanics through gameplay, sometimes a tutorial is useful.

Tedium is an annoyingly common feature of The Starship Damrey, and to illustrate that, let’s look at two of its puzzles. The first is probably the cleverest puzzle in the game; there’s a robot blocking your way and attacking you, and you have to find some way to stop it. Looking in the game’s database you can find information that robots can’t handle temperatures over 200 degrees, so you figure you have to find something that will be hot enough to disable your robo-assaulter. While doing some exploring you find an empty cookie jar, and will hopefully figure out that by putting the oil you found earlier in there and heating it up on the hotplate in the common room, you’ll have a perfect weapon. I’m being nice here and assuming that you remember both the oil and the hotplate, and don’t have to go searching through every room before you figure out the solution. Either way, you first head down through the elevator to the oil tap. Then, you place the jar under the tap and fill it with oil. After leaving the room and heading back up to the second level, you realise that you didn’t take the oil jar with you; the game has a nasty habit of requiring you to examine objects multiple times before being allowed to interact with them, so you forgot that the oil tap had to be examined again before you could remove the jar. After traipsing all the way back to the oil tap, then back again to the second floor, then finally to the hot plate, you have to watch a stupidly long heating-up process before you have the hot oil weapon of your desires. And that’s the good puzzle.

The puzzle directly after this requires you to remove a pile of debris that’s blocking your way to the next room. In the nearby lab, you find an assortment of chemicals, and in the doctor’s study you find a recipe for an explosive mixture. Of course, in a sensible game, you’d have enough inventory space to carry all the necessary chemicals to the debris, then create the explosion there. But no, the robots on the good Starship Damrey are only capable of holding one item in their claws, meaning you have to slowly trundle from the lab to the debris three times before you can create the explosion. Unlike the previous puzzle, this one is as simple as they come, but it’s made needlessly tedious. What’s more, it highlights just how obnoxious only being able to hold one item at a time is. Not only does this simplify the puzzles and mean they can only be designed in a linear fashion; it also causes situations like the one described above. Those two are extreme examples, but the game isn’t long enough to let them become forgettable distractions. It’s a shame that some smart and some simple puzzles are bogged down by poorly streamlined game design to the point of frustration.

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However, the imaginary defender of this game (I say imaginary because of the handful of people who actually played this game, I can’t think of any of them getting much out of it), might argue that the puzzles in the game are merely a conduit to the interesting and atmospheric story. I sympathise with this view to an extent; I’ve forgiven poor gameplay for a great story in the past, and had this game had a story worth experiencing, I might still have recommended it.

Sadly, that is not the case. The atmosphere of this game is as generic sci-fi horror as it comes – a dark and abandoned spaceship with dead crew strewn around the floor and a little girl hologram randomly appearing for the odd jump-scare. The scariest thing in the game is the sound that the space leeches make when you go near them, which is a bizarre and unexpected static-like screech. But the one weird sound doesn’t excuse the design of every corridor, robot and alien, which are all as stock as they come. The ship is comprised of endless grey corridors and big empty grey rooms; the robots are simple designs that could be in any sci-fi game, and the alien has literal glowing red eyes and a simple grey humanoid design. There’s so much fucking grey in this game.

As for the story, it’s remarkably obtuse until after the credits, when all is revealed. I’ll put a spoiler warning here for anyone seriously wanting to play this game, but for those who have been put off by my ranting; the game’s overarching mission is to free yourself from the pod you’re trapped in, as well as work out what’s happened to all of the crew members. The answer is amazingly boring; you’ve kidnapped three aliens in order to research them, and they ended up killing the crew. It’s not exactly 2001 (although the game does throw in a cheeky reference to that film). In the post credits stinger, it’s revealed that you aren’t a person in the pod, but one of the aliens, and that you’ve basically freed yourself in order to bring havoc to humanity or something. That twist is alright, but it’s awfully clued – there’s nothing to suggest that more than one alien was ever on board until the game tells you in the end. So while it may be shocking, it’s not satisfying.

Mercifully, the full game takes under 3 hours to complete, meaning you don’t have to spend more time than necessary in the Starship Damrey. It’s a shame that not every project would work out as well as Friday Monsters, but I think Damrey shows the limits of GUILD as much as Friday Monsters shows the strengths. Although the game has a bigger budget than it might have been awarded otherwise, it’s spent here on pointless cutscenes, rather than making the ship an interesting place to explore. And while a small-scale game can focus on interesting gameplay concepts that might not get funding elsewhere, like a game without tutorials, or an inventory, that doesn’t mean those ideas are worth pursuing. The Starship Damrey is an odd game in the GUILD series, because it feels as experimental as it is rote. However, with it out of the way, we’re free to explore the games that fall in between these levels of quality.

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Attack of the Friday Monsters

In the 1950s, the prospering Japanese film industry reinvented the “monster movie.” The giant monsters of the era were “kaiju” that often symbolized the effects of pollution, such as radiation and hydrogen bomb experiments.
In the 1960s and 70s, the “hero show” was born. Brave heroes challenged the kaiju on prime time television, and the entire nation tuned in.
The heroes were just as big as the monstrous kaiju, but they were more like friends to the children of Japan, or even a father that would protect them, no matter the sacrifices he had to make…
      – This text appears each time you start up Attack of the Friday Monsters

I first heard about Level-5’s Guild series through Official Nintendo Magazine, an old UK-based Nintendo publication that I subscribed to before it sadly shut down in 2014. The Guild series consisted of two 3DS games published by Level-5 that were a collection of small games made by different famous game directors. Although sold in a bundle in Japan, in the West, these games were released without the “Guild” tagline on the eShop. At first, the only game of this collection I bought was Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale. This is because of a certain phrase from the ONM review that stuck out to me; that the game made the reviewer ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’. Although I’ve long since lost my copy of that magazine and the website has been shut down for some time, that phrase and this game have occupied a part of my mind for quite a while now. And while I talked about this game in my list of my favourite 3DS games, I’ve wanted to expand not only on why I consider Friday Monsters such a treasure, but on the Guild series as a whole, and why it was such a worthwhile experiment. 

Attack of the Friday Monsters centres around a young boy named Sohta, who has recently moved to Fuji no Hana, a fictional small suburb of Tokyo. Every Friday, giant monsters supposedly fight in the fields near the town, and as such, the children are warned from wandering too far afield. As Sohta, you investigate the truth behind the monster attacks, as well as find out more about the other inhabitants of Fuji no Hana.

Gameplay as a whole is pretty simple, and mainly consists of running from objective marker to objective marker talking to people. Occasionally (and I really do mean occasionally, it’s only necessary at two points in the story), you have to play a card game against your friends. The game is called “Monster Cards”, and it’s a clever take on the rock-paper-scissors game — serving as a decent distraction from the main plot, and something to keep you coming back once the story is over. The catch is that the way you collect cards for playing Monster Cards is by finding “glims” scattered on the ground around Fuji no Hana. Collect 5 of the same type of glim and you get a Monster Card. At the start of the game, you are asked to run around collecting at least 20 glims, assuming you never pick up more than 5 of the same type. This could be excused as a way to familiarise players with the map, but given its small size and detailed map on the touchscreen, it comes across as tedious padding.

When the game starts, a small musical cut scene plays that near perfectly encapsulates much of what I love about Attack of the Friday Monsters. I’ve linked the opening scene above for you to see, but there are a few things in it I really want to highlight.

The first is the fact that there’s an opening scene at all, sung from the perspective of Sohta. Sohta is obsessed with the hero shows of early 1970s Japan, and often sees his life as mirroring one. That a day in his life has an opening theme tune, or that each of the tasks you have to complete in the game are referred to as ‘episodes’ is just a lovely bit of theming.

It’s also a bit of theming that ties into the main idea of the game; the confusing nature of childhood. In the lyrics of the opening song, Sohta mentions that “Both my Mom and Dad love me, I don’t really know why, what should I do?” This uncertainty of life as a child is present throughout the game. It’s not just in Sohta or any other characters’ relationships with their parents, it bleeds into everything, including the plot.

The main hook of the game is found in seeing whether or not the monsters really do come out on Friday. As a viewer, you see many clues telling you they don’t, such as a TV station that seems to be responsible for the evidence that might prove the existence of said monsters. But Sohta consistently fails to put two and two together. Even when he and his friends come close — such as realising the monster footprints have been dug by people, and finding that a sign believed to be in an alien language was just made by the father of one of Sohta’s friends — the kids still never doubt the existence of the monsters or aliens. It’s a lovely bit of childhood wonder, and by the end of the game the viewer is sucked into it as well, as events occur that seem unexplainable through ‘adult’ logic, and we are asked to simply accept them. Although the game starts by maintaining a relative distance between the player and the child characters by offering the the former rational explanations for what the children see as fantastical, by the end it has eased us into their perspective and asks us to suspend our disbelief as well. For me, it works perfectly.

This dramatic irony is also used in the child characters’ dialogue for the game’s lightly comedic moments. There’s nothing in this game that comes close to laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s meant to be gently amusing, and it mostly nails that feel. The dialogue for the children is pretty spot-on, although when the game attempts weightier dramatic moments, it occasionally veers too close to melodrama for comfort. Take, for example, the game’s bully character. He isn’t in the game for too long, but whenever he is, his storyline falls much too in-line with every bully stereotype, including Sohta literally asking him “You’re just lonely, aren’t you?” It’s a rare and disappointing step into stock tropes in a game that otherwise defies them in its strange storyline. The argument could be made that the childrens’ often stock personalities are calling back to the hero shows that the game is constantly referencing, but it manages to defy expectations in its adult characters and central plotline, so I don’t see why it can’t for the younger members of the cast.

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Returning quickly to the opening song, it also serves as an introduction to my favourite thing about this game; its unique and perfectly realised atmosphere. Here’s where the idea of ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’ really comes into play; it’s not just that the game recreates what it’s like being a child that makes it impressive, it’s that the game recreates what it’s like being a child in 1970s suburban Tokyo.

The lot you have to explore is small and doesn’t change much or open up a lot during the game, but it’s quietly beautiful. All the backgrounds are hand-drawn, with the 3D character models placed on top of them; an effect that works surprisingly well, even if it’s a shame that the 3DS’ image quality sometimes stops this from looking as good as it could be. It also means that each screen on the game has a fixed camera angle à la Resident Evil, although it works better in this game given the slow moving nature of the gameplay.

Attack of the Friday Monsters makes use of its status as a videogame even outside of Monster Cards. Although much of what I’ve described of Friday Monsters’ strengths could come forth in a book or film, games as a whole are more immersive, and there’s something to be said for small atmospheric details — such as the radios playing in shops, or the train announcements that get quieter as you move away from the train station — that can only have the effect they have in a video game form. Additionally, even though the story is highly structured, the small moments of freedom that come from deciding in which order to complete optional episodes, or even which route to take to a point on the map all contribute to sucking you in to this act of tourism in someone else’s memories.

Attack of the Friday Monsters was created by Kaz Ayabe (born in 1965), who is best known otherwise for creating the Japan-only series Boku no Natusyasumi (lit. My Summer Holiday). These games have a similar gentle, holiday feel to them, but they are more open life-sims. Attack of the Friday Monsters is a much stranger game, and a much more personal game. For someone like me, this exemplifies the strengths of the Guild series. It gave creators a chance to make extremely personal projects with a big budget, not ever having to worry about anything except how to best bring to life their vision. Boku no Natusyasumi has 4 games in its series, whereas there will likely and hopefully never be an Attack of the Saturday Monsters. But therein lies its charm – Ayabe was allowed to make a game about the strange inconsistencies and confusing nature of childhood, all the while bringing the player into a slice of Japan that can no longer be experienced. It does indeed make me nostalgic for someone else’s childhood.

Netflix’s Fullmetal Alchemist

This post contains spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist, the Fullmetal Alchemist anime and won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen at least one of them. 

Perhaps a natural consequence of being a Japanese student at university, I have recently found myself drawn slowly back into the murky waters of anime. A big contributor to this has been Netflix, which reintroduced me to anime with Devilman Crybaby (more on that in an upcoming review). Their next big-ditch effort to get me watching anime again is with the live action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist; one of my favourite TV shows, animated or otherwise. (People will be quick to point out that this film isn’t really a Netflix film, but hey look it’s distributed by them here and it fits with my opening spiel so shh).

For those not in the know, I highly suggest not reading this post, and instead retreating to a cave for a couple of weeks to binge through the 2003 and 2009 adaptations of Hiromu Arakawa’s manga (and then coming back to this please). But if you really don’t have the time, then here’s a brief rundown of what Fullmetal Alchemist is all about. The story takes place in the fictional European country of Amestris post-Industrial Revolution. The country is ruled by a large military, which employs various ‘state alchemists’; essentially scientists who use alchemy (which in this universe is basically a kind of magic) for military purposes. The main plotline of Fullmetal Alchemist follows one such state alchemist in his effort to find the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which grants the user the power to perform alchemy without following the ‘Law of Equivalent Exchange’, which dictates that in order to create something, something of equal value must be sacrificed. Said alchemist, Edward Elric, needs the stone in order to get his arm and leg and his brother’s body back, having lost them attempting to resurrect their mother.

Despite how badly I explained that, you’ll have to trust me that the story of Fullmetal Alchemist is incredibly well told, and its world beautifully well realised. It perfects, to my mind at least, everything you need from a fantasy epic; an interesting and thought out setting; a complex but not pedantic plot; stakes that raise in a natural and addictive way, and most importantly, engaging and well-written characters. One day I’d love to write about the series and its many good adaptations. But, of course, that’s not what you’re here for. Instead, let’s talk about this adaptation.

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To put it simply, the new live action Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation is bad. Really, really bad. It works neither for fans of the series, nor for newcomers.

I think we can cover most of the film’s issues with an examination of one plotline, and it’s one of the most famous from the original story; the meeting between Edward Elric and Shou Tucker, the Sewing Life Alchemist. For many fans, this is the moment that sticks out most in all of Fullmetal Alchemist, and it’s for a good reason. This is the pivotal moment in which the series undergoes a pretty harsh tonal shift. There are undercurrents of tragedy throughout the series’ start, with the loss of the Elric’s mother and the loss of Rose’s husband. But the dramatic murder of Nina and Alexander is sure to stick in anyone’s mind. It brings the Elric brother’s to their lowest point, starts to expose the flaws in the military, and introduces the potential horrors of alchemy. So, of course, I was interested to see how the live action adaptation would handle it.

First impressions are pretty good; specifically in the casting. Shou Tucker in this version is pretty unassuming, much more so than the slightly creepy Tucker of the original. I’m sure his dramatic shift will come as more of a surprise than the original Tucker’s might have done. Nina and Alexander are also pretty adorable, just to stick the knife in as much as possible. In general, the casting in the film is on point, although, of course, with the caveat that the actors are Japanese.

Hollywood adaptations are often given a bad rap for their lack of diversity, and while I understand that, Fullmetal Alchemist dodges that criticism because the main cast are all European. I’d be fine with the Japanese version retconning the story to take place in a Japanese setting, or even keep the European style and have all the characters be Japanese, but instead the live-action version compromises. Blond characters, including Edward Elric, seem to either be wearing a wig or have their hair bleached, which looks awful. Doing this instead of hiring blond actors or simply not bothering makes it look like the characters are simply cosplaying, a problem that also extends to the costumes. Of this slavish devotion to the anime’s look, the Homunculi suffer the worst. Gluttony looks comical, while Envy’s outfit is just absurd. I know I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but I much prefer adaptations that change the look of the original to suit live action. Give me a US Death Note over a Japanese Fullmetal Alchemist any day.

Returning to Tucker, the meeting between him and Ed starts with the two of them talking about Tucker’s backstory while Winry and Al play with Nina and Alexander. Ed then tells Tucker about his backstory, which has just been shown to us around 2 scenes ago.

So here we come to the film’s second problem; exposition. Fullmetal Alchemist is about 27 manga volumes long, and each of its adaptations run for around 60 episodes. It’s clear that the film won’t get through that much content in 2 and a half hours, and at many points it thankfully doesn’t even try. This means, however, that there’s bound to be a lot of exposition, but the amount of scenes of characters just talking at each other is frustrating. When Ed talks to Tucker about his backstory it’s especially bad seeing as we’ve seen it play out minutes beforehand, but even if the information is new to the viewer, it’s often presented in the most boring way possible.

The anime also had exposition dumps, but the dialogue was often filled with personality, and the animation took full use of its potential, with wildly expressive characters. In this adaptation, if the characters aren’t expositing in a bland meeting room, then they’re expositing on the battlefield, between attacks. In anime, the suspension of disbelief allows you to get away with a lot more – in live action it’s much stricter. When Lust pauses during the fight with Mustang and Ed to explain her own weak point to them, I was baffled at just how poorly the writers were conveying this information.

When Ed has finished telling Tucker what we already knew, Tucker offers to help examine Al’s body, a touch I enjoyed, because it gives Tucker more to do than just own a library. Tucker then tells Ed about Dr. Marcoh, but he confusingly does this offscreen, despite the film already proving that it loves to shove exposition dumps at us.

When Ed returns from seeing Dr. Marcoh, we finally get to the scene when the truth about Tucker is revealed and it’s a let-down to say the least.

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Firstly, the scene takes place in pretty much broad daylight. I know that thunder and lightning during a dramatic scene is a bit rote, but pathetic fallacy is used for a reason; it ups the drama considerably, and allows some more interesting lighting. The scene in the anime looked threatening and dynamic – here it looks flat and cheap. This flat lighting is present throughout the film and really makes the whole thing look incredibly cheap and bland.

Evidence of the film’s budget is inconsistent – often the CGI looks amazing. Al’s armoured body is especially good, with some real weight behind it. Other times it looks less than convincing, and the Nina/Alexander chimera also suffers some because of it. In the anime, the flat, empty eyes of the dog were haunting because they were so simplified, but they just look a bit strange when made 3D. Other creations, such as the immortal army just end up looking incredibly strange, although maybe the fact that I can’t figure out if I find them incredibly creepy or completely ridiculous means they’re a success.

Eventually Ed figures out the truth behind Tucker’s mad experiment and starts to beat him up (again, lacking the dramatic lighting of the original). And I think it’s here where I can highlight my final problem with the film; the acting.

I want to preface this by saying I’m not entirely sure that it’s the actors who are completely at fault here, because there are some scenes with real promise in them. Instead, I’d say it was the script, and not even necessarily the original script. Instead, it’s a confusing devotion to the manga’s script and tone. In anime, you can get away with going extremely over-the-top, especially for comedy, but that doesn’t work as well in live action. When the actors imitate the anime’s line delivery it just doesn’t work, not just because of their many pregnant pauses in between lines, but because their facial expression just can’t match the energy required of them. Even in drawing Arakawa realised that the tonal shift of the way characters spoke sometimes was a bit jarring, and for comedic zany moments would simplify the art style to ease the reader into the new tone. Of course, you can’t do that in live-action, but the zany lines were kept in and it all just feels a bit odd.

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It’s not just comedy where this happens; melodrama creates it as well. In the anime, when Tucker starts revealing his true self to Ed, the lines he says are quite cliched, quite melodramatic (“Me and you; we’re the same!” is the sort of thing Dr. Evil says to Austin Powers, not what real people say to each other), but the animation makes it work. The Tucker of this version gives a subtler performance, but he’s asked to spout the same lines, and so they’re exposed to not really working in live action.

I think that’s the point, isn’t it? Fullmetal Alchemist would never work in live action, at least not when so accurately recreated on-screen. I’m fine with this, because the story exists in its perfect form already, but I think every anime adaptation needs to learn from this. Yes, changing the story dramatically will be controversial. No one (except me) responded well to the Netflix Death Note film, but the answer isn’t to go back to making 1:1 recreations. Stories need to be adapted to their medium, and what works in animation won’t work in live-action. I’m not just talking about the size of the plot, or the specific moments of flashy animation – I’m talking everything from character design to tone.

So. If Hollywood ever decides to make a Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation, or when Japan inevitably puts whatever was popular a few years ago to film – I want the directors to ask what they can bring to the story beyond just the bare minimum.

Stray Observations

  • Trisha Elric’s death scene is unintentionally hilarious, and a really bad start to the film, given that she just kinda… falls over.
  • The film is able to retcon Winry’s hair colour, but not Ed’s or Riza’s?
  • General Halcrow is given an expanded role in the film, but the Fuhrer isn’t in it. Halcrow’s role is that of a face for military corruption, but I really don’t see why they couldn’t have used the Fuhrer. I’m guessing this was to do with leaving him for a sequel, but it just makes Halcrow’s role very weird and underdeveloped. (Also, if he is supposed to be a symbol of widespread corruption, then why does he claim that no one gives him orders? Doesn’t that mean that everything that happened in Lab 5 was just down to him? Did Bradley even know in this canon????)
  • Also Tucker comes back for no reason at the end of the film. Basically he just says some exposition then is killed.
  • Speaking of ‘no reason’ – there’s no reason the Homunculi keep Ed alive. They keep saying he’ll be a good sacrifice, but this is never bought up. Instead, all he does is hinder their plan, so them keeping him alive is baffling.
  • The soundtrack is really awful – not just bland, but at times jarring.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

This post contains heavy spoilers for the ending of Ghost Trick, and I recommend having played the game before reading.

I view it as a mark of shame on my own self that it has taken me this long to finish playing Ghost Trick. I have owned the game on DS and iOS for a couple of years, but until playing it for this review I have never managed to get past the second chapter. This has been something I’ve been loath to admit, because the game’s writer and director, Shu Takumi, was responsible for the creation of the Ace Attorney series, and wrote what are its best entries. Ghost Trick is his first departure from that series in 10 years, and some fans hail it as his best game, or even his masterpiece.

To evaluate whether Ghost Trick is Takumi’s best game would involve comparing it to his other works, and the purpose of this review isn’t to do this. Instead, I want to talk about Ghost Trick alone, to attempt to come to terms with my own feelings about the game after having finished it; that I regard Ghost Trick as no real masterpiece, nor even Takumi’s best game, but that I found myself thoroughly enjoying it regardless.

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Last year, when I reviewed Breath of the Wild, I said that all of its various strengths can be easily shown off in its opening sequence and I think the same is true of Ghost Trick, so this post will use that sequence as its structural foundation.

When the game opens, it does so with spotlights; a visual flair Takumi is clearly enamoured with, given its use in his latest duology, the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series. It’s remarkably easy to see why – the spotlights instantly shine a light (pun very much intended) on the game’s unique sense of style. I tried, mostly in vain to think of an appropriate catchy name for this style, but the best I could come up with is ‘cheery noir’, which doesn’t quite work – but hopefully gives you a sense of what I’m going for. In its opening area and night-time setting, Ghost Trick has many of the trappings of a noir style; the city at night, in the rain, with an appropriately jazzy soundtrack and hitmen dressed in suits. The spotlights aren’t a traditional noir trapping, but given the genre’s heavy emphasis on the interplay between light and shadow, they fit right in. This noir theming continues throughout the game; even as the settings and plot become more and more ridiculous, the soundtrack and certain visual hints continue to connect this game to its noir influence.

However, as the game continues, the “cheery” side of my newly-minted phrase becomes more apparent. It’s present from the beginning in the use of certain strong colours in Lynne and Sissel’s clothing, but as characters such as Cabenela and Missile start to crop up, the game’s tone becomes more upbeat and does so almost seamlessly. This balance between the game’s ever-present noir influence and its at-times relentless optimism is really reflected in the game’s style; in its music, its settings, its character design. From a visual side, Ghost Trick represents a game coming very close to appealing directly to my own sensibilities, and I love it for it.

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Of course, visuals are only a small part of the game’s appeal, and after the opening cutscene, the game deigns to explain to you its main mechanics; the ‘Ghost Tricks’ themselves. I’m hoping and assuming that those reading this will have played the game, but for a quick refresher (or for you naughty daredevils who really don’t care about spoilers); the main gameplay thrust is solving puzzles that require you to manipulate objects around a room, poltergeist-style, in order to prevent the deaths of various kooky characters around a nameless city over the course of a single night. By rewinding time to 4 minutes before the person’s death, our protagonist Sissel watches the actions leading up to their murder, then possesses and moves certain objects in order to save their lives. For my money, the best example of this system at work comes in the manipulation of a literal Rube Goldberg machine (or Heath Robinson contraption for us Brits) in order to prevent the firing of a gun at the end of the device.

All of the action in Ghost Trick is presented on a 2D plane, aiding greatly with visual clarity. When manipulating objects, it should always be obvious what effect that object has and setting the game’s action in vertical slices of large environments makes it clearer to the player what’s going on, without sacrificing the game’s visual design.

In the game’s opening chapter, upon possessing Lynne’s corpse, the player is shown a quick video of her death, and this becomes one of the game’s best ideas for preventing the puzzles from being turned into just trial and error (more on this later). When the game shows you the events before the corpse’s death, it often shows you how certain objects interact, and therefore what you might need to do to change the fates of the unfortunate victims. Take, for example, the second chapter murder of Kamila. Here, the video shown beforehand informs you that the mice are attracted to the doughnut; that the dog, Missile, barks at the mouse; and that Kamila will follow Missile wherever he is barking in order to shut him up. When the game then tells you to hide Kamila when the hitman enters, you have all the information required to lure her where you want – the only thing to work out is how to move the doughnut to where you want it.

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The problem comes in later chapters where the game is stingier with its information. Take, for example, the Chicken Kitchen chapter. Here, the video of the death is taken from inside the car, and helpfully shows the cause of death. However, all the actual manipulation to be done is inside the kitchen, an area you know nothing about until you arrive there. This is, to be fair, a lesser example – the puzzle inside the Chicken Kitchen is relatively simple, but this is a problem that shows up at various points; it’s there in the Justice Minister’s Office; in the Superintendent’s Office near the end of the game and in the Submarine, so it’s a shame when such a clever solution to an obvious complaint is abandoned so quickly.

The puzzles themselves, then, do often contain quite a lot of trial and error. While most are simple enough not to be too much of a problem, I don’t think that’s an excuse for the game’s worst habits. Trial and error can be fun; working out each object’s role is often a captivating experience, but it throws up two distinct problems.

The first of these problems is the lesser one. When the player is forced to mosey around the landscape for a while, working out how different things fit together, this often removes a lot of tension from the situation. Although it’s easy to argue that the time-travel mechanic means that these situations were never meant to be tense to begin with, the music and dramatic visual cues hint otherwise. I think this is probably something exacerbated by the last chapters, and you can tell that the final chapter was made easier to mitigate this problem, but it’s still worth pointing out, even if it might not have affected every player.

More importantly, the trial and error natures of the puzzle kills a lot of momentum that the game has, especially when you consider the fact that the puzzles are really just video manipulation. You see, the game often makes you pause and wait for a certain action to happen in the video before you can act. So the game, and not you, dictates when and how you can move, or even solve the puzzle.

Just as an act of facetiousness, I decided to look up a walkthrough of Ghost Trick and cmd+f to see how many times the word “wait” appears (it’s 34 times in 16 puzzle chapters). Of course, it would be fallacious to claim that this meant the game made you wait exactly this much, because this is based off of a perfect walkthrough guided playthrough. What’s more, most of this waiting is inconsequential, or won’t even be noticed by the player because they might realise what the next action should be when the video is at the perfect place for them to act on it. You could, however, twist it the other way; a player who doesn’t know what to do will often find themselves creating new wait opportunities for themselves, as they might mess with objects that require the action of another character to return to their original state (to continue with using Chicken Kitchen as an example, the fans in that room can be turned on by the player, but they then have to wait for the waitress to turn them off).

Regular followers of toatali reviews, or those who chat to me outside of it will know that I get more frustrated than the average person of a game wasting my time, even in minor ways, and at certain points I did wish the game streamlined itself with the inclusion of a fast-forward or rewind button. I’m sure that this was brought up in development, but if I had to imagine why it was shut down, it was probably due to the addition of certain timing challenges, such as realising that you have to use the split-second opportunity to move to the Chief Justice’s water jug in the puzzle in his room. With a rewind button this puzzle would be completely trivialised. As the variety in the style of puzzle the game presents is already slightly thin on the ground, I don’t think that abandoning this kind of puzzle for the slight convenience of a rewind button would be worth it as the game stands now.

This whole section might have sounded pretty nitpicky, especially to those who never picked up on these issues during their playthrough. For the most part, the puzzles were simple and well-telegraphed enough that the wait time issue wasn’t too big a problem. However, even if it only affected a few people a few times throughout the game, it would still be worth touching on.

I would like to reiterate, however, that I am still a big fan of Ghost Trick’s puzzles. They are extremely unique to the game, and for the most part, extremely clever in how they manage to tie together seemingly disparate objects and movements in order to string together some complex chain reaction that prevents a murder.

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There’s also a lot of smart little details to how the game plays with its puzzles. That the initial setting of the tutorial is a junkyard, for example, allows the game to use whatever objects it wants in order to make the puzzle solving mechanics obvious to the player. Or that a central plot device is a Rube Goldberg machine, which is a perfect distillation of the game’s environments into one device. The later addition of Missile’s object-swapping mechanic makes for some really clever puzzles, but it’s also impressive that the game can still think of innovative ways to use Sissel’s manipulation abilities so long into the game, with puzzles like guiding Jowd around making for some ingenious variations on the classic Sissel-based puzzles.

I think I’ve said enough on the gameplay, so let’s go onto story. In the introduction to the game, a number of central questions are asked that provide a core running hook to keep the player invested throughout the game. The main one is obviously “Who Am I?” but other subjects brought up at this point include Lynne and the case she’s investigating, the desk lamp Ray and his identity, the motivations of the hitman, and whatever the hell “Temsik” is. These plot threads all spiral off into multiple branching questions, until, at around the midpoint of the game you may have trouble just identifying what it is you’re looking for. At a certain point, the main narrative thrust becomes following a chain of dead bodies without knowing how this is connected to the central mysteries. But the game eventually deftly ties up all these plot points, capping it off by answering the two most intriguing questions; who are you, and who is Ray?

In focusing so much around a variety of questions, however, Takumi creates a problem for himself, and one that rears its ugly head as soon as the player talks to Lynne for the first time. There are quite a few names for this problem, as it’s certainly not exclusive to Ghost Trick. It’s linked to JJ. Abram’s infamous ‘mystery box’ style of storytelling, and it’s something that Takumi has become so fond of that a friend of mine had to address it in their review of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2, referring to it as ‘pointless abstraction’. And of course, people might notice me doing it just there, as I name-drop the existence of this ‘thing’ without telling you what it is. To that effect, I’ve decided to, perhaps cringeworthily, name it the “ano hito” problem. “Ano Hito” literally means “that person”, and it’s because I’ve noticed this problem in quite a few Japanese TV shows and games that I decided to use that language in my desperate attempt to add at least one phrase to the pop-culture lexicon.

Anyway, enough beating around the bush – the problem in Ghost Trick is that Takumi loves to beat around the bush at any occasion given to him, because drawing a player in is more important than having characters address one another coherently. Sometimes it shows itself in the way I described, with characters saying things like “we have to tell that person that that thing is happening tonight”, but more often it’s strange character choices such as Lynne not telling Sissel about the case she’s working, even though he’s a ghost who just saved her life. Or perhaps when Jowd tells you that he killed the criminal in the park, just so the meteorite revelation can be a twist. If you look out for it, there’s a whole lot of plot convenience in the way people talk in Ghost Trick.

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I think that the ‘ano hito’ problem is a direct result of the kind of interconnected story that Takumi tries to tell here and in the Dai Gyakuten Saiban franchise; stories with sprawling plots and a myriad of twists and turns. Many of these twists are executed with pinpoint precision. I was, for example, a huge fan of the twist involving Sissel’s identity, which manages to be well forecast, and explain some of Sissel’s annoying character quirks, such as not knowing some basic English vocabulary. Other twists, such as Ray’s identity or Cabanela’s true good nature, build perfectly on characters we know.

Other twists left me slightly cold. Another problem of Takumi’s writing that surfaces in Ghost Trick is his reliance on tragic past events to inform character motivations. It’s there in DL-6, and SL-9, as well as 6 other cases throughout the trilogy (being generous), and of course crops up in Apollo Justice’s final case. Ghost Trick has two tragic crimes that become integral to solving the mystery of the present, and while past tragedies aren’t necessarily a bad motivation for character, it’s disheartening to see Takumi fall back on this old crutch.

More damning for me, though, were the twists that felt tonally inconsistent. Take my least favourite – the Rube Goldberg death of Jowd’s wife. It’s a tragedy, for sure, that Kamila ends up killing her mother (what is it with writers for AA and matricide?), but the murder method is just a bit absurd. While Takumi is a master of tonal balancing, he often strikes that balance by segueing between the absurd and the emotional, and when he jams them into the same scene, it tests my suspension of disbelief more than I would want. Kamila’s matricide could have been more of a gut punch were Yomiel to have simply manipulated Kamila into directly shooting her, as he later does with Lynne, but this isn’t the case. The Rube Goldberg death might have even been acceptable if the game had hinted prior to the revelation that Kamila was a fan of building these machines, but instead that’s a detail it casually throws in after the fact, when you’ve already seen a woman get shot with a birthday cake delivery machine and asked to buy it with a straight face.

The revelations behind the ghost trick powers of the dead that involve the meteorite Temsik also didn’t quite strike the right note with me. I was happy to buy that the powers of the dead just were; I didn’t need a space radiation-based explanation. My biggest problem with Temsik, however, is that occasionally it’s used to cleverly explain certain aspects of the plot, such as who gets ghost powers and how the appearance of certain cores differ – but occasionally I feel like it’s used to write its way out of certain plot difficulties. Most jarring to me was the half-hearted explanation as to how ghost powers change over time so that the game can explain away some of Yomiel’s, and later Missile’s, actions. If the game hadn’t even tried to explain the powers of the dead, I think I would have probably just bought all of it, as I did at the start of the game, but when they are explained it casts them under new scrutiny as a plot mechanic rather than just a gameplay one, and they hold up less well.

Ultimately, I’m left wondering if Ghost Trick is really the right game for this kind of story. In Ace Attorney, a game that also revels in its twists and reveals, those twists are delivered in the hands of the player. We expose the murderer, we reveal how he got away with it, and we expose the truths behind tragic cases from the past. In Ghost Trick, Sissel is a useless character outside of gameplay; the various plot revelations are just told to him, and it feels more like watching a film with occasional semi-related gameplay breaks, as opposed to being a ‘Phantom Detective’ myself. Were the game to allow you to solve the mysteries, I wonder how I would have reacted to some of the more outlandish twists, having proved them myself, but as they stand, I can only fully get on board with a few of them.

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If there’s an aspect of the plot I can get fully behind, it’s definitely the characters. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the characters turn Ghost Trick from a game I like to a game I’m very close to loving. The main characters are fantastic; each are surprisingly static in terms of character development (Cabanela seems to be the only character who changes much, but it’s hard to know if it’s him that changes, or simply the player’s perception of him), but the emphasis is mainly placed on getting you to want to spend time with them. If the plot of Ghost Trick is a rollercoaster, then the main characters are the people you’d want to experience it with. This may sound sentimental, and I think it is a bit, but it shows the power of Takumi’s writing.

If I can single out one specific thing Takumi does well, it’s writing animals. I’m not just talking about Missile, who is a stunningly well written little doggie, but also about Sissel himself, who was the perfect kind of begrudgingly friendly that the revelation that he was a cat all along was surprisingly natural.

It’s not just the central cast, however; the world of Ghost Trick is just such a bizarre pleasure to be in. The way Takumi writes the bit parts in Ghost Trick has, I feel, improved from his Ace Attorney days, but he’s aided by the game’s animations. The characters were originally rendered and animated in 3D, before being squashed onto the 2D plane, and this allows their range of movement to be unlike any other I’ve seen in an adventure game. There’s a subtlety to their actions that allows wordless scenes to convey character as well as any of Takumi’s writing. In an interview Joystiq did with Takumi, they point out the way Lynne backs up against a fence in the opening scene and quickly looks back against it. When admiring Ghost Trick’s animation, it’s easy to think of Bailey’s panic dance or Cabenela’s shimmy down the stairs, but I think it’s these moments that make the animations such an essential part of Ghost Trick.

Is Ghost Trick, then, Takumi’s masterpiece? I hope I’ve proven to you why I think that it isn’t. The game has too many minor issues that niggle away at the back of my mind to come even close to matching the two games I think best showcase his writing (Trials and Tribulations and Dai Gyakuten Saiban).

That’s not a problem, however, nor is it a deterrent that prevents me from really enjoying this game. When I finished the game, I messaged a friend of mine that it was a “lovely little game”. I think that this summation of the game is a little flippant, but to dismiss this instinctual reaction would also be wrong. I think that Ghost Trick has so much going for it; the gameplay is fun and original; the writing is funny and engaging. Even if it can’t reach the heights it might aspire to, I’m still just happy for its existence. I thought that writing about it might sour me on the game, as it has done for others in the past, but ultimately I’ve just been reminded of its charm in spite of its flaws.

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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

 

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

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]

tornosuke

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.

takemi

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.

menup5

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.