Top 5 Video Games of 2017

Because of their nature as more time consuming and expensive than films and tv shows, I didn’t get the chance to play too many games in 2017 (something further complicated by me moving somewhere without a TV in September). But the games I did manage to play were almost all at a higher standard than what I normally consume, further proving the strength of 2017 as a year for pop culture.

Honourable Mentions

I have three games I wanted to shout out this year, although I can only give one of them an unqualified recommendation. That one game is Gorogoa, a puzzle game that is unlike any other I’ve played in its central puzzle mechanic, which involves the manipulation of painstakingly drawn illustrations in order to guide the central character to his goal. With a subtle story playing out in the background, and amazingly detailed visuals populating the foreground, this game narrowly missed out on a spot on my list, because its short length meant that I was left a little unsatisfied.

I also want to shout out the two 90+ hour JPRGS I played this year, mainly so I don’t feel that my time was wasted on them. I completed Persona 5, and wrote an extensive review of it on this site, which I’d encourage you all to read if you feel it deserved a place on my list this year.

The other stupidly long JPRG Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I have yet to come close to finishing, but while it lacks the polish of P5, it makes up for it in sheer campy fun. I can’t recommend XB2 to anyone, but it comes the closest out of any game I’ve played to being “The Room” of video games; with its abysmal and stilted English voice acting, ludicrous semi-parodic JRPG plot and hilariously complex battle system, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 really manages to live up to the rare adage of ‘so bad it’s good’.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to talking about the games that are so good they’re good. (Hooray for another year of clunky segues).

5. Metroid: Samus Returns

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 11.44.28

Yes, in truth much of the reason for this game’s spot on the list is that it’s been so long since the last Nintendo published Metroid game, and Metroid is a series near and dear to my heart. It’s also true that this game is not without major flaws as an adaptation, and both Mark Brown and ShayMay have made excellent videos as to how and why it falls slightly flat when remaking Metroid II.

However, I don’t really care. I had a lot of fun with Samus Returns. Samus feels absolutely fantastic to control; simultaneously light on her feet when leaping around SR388, and grounded when she plants her feet to allow for free range aiming. I was also extremely fond of the counter mechanic, despite the controversy. There’s an immense satisfaction to countering bosses and enemies, and while it slows the pace in the early game, by the late game your beam is powerful enough the it stops being a necessity.

The structure is perhaps a little odd for a Metroid game, bearing closer to the Fusion model of linearity than the classic “Metroidvania” model of games like Super Metroid. However, as a return to prominence for Samus, it strikes a perfect balance by introducing players new to the genre to the non linear paths of many Metroid games in bitesize areas, which connect to each other in a linear fashion.

Samus Returns is a welcome return to form for a long dormant series, and I can only hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for the next 2D Metroid game.

4. Nier Automata

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 12.00.25

Nier Automata‘s place on this list just proves how stupid the system of ranking is, and that I’m only doing it because I misguidedly think it’ll stir up some discussion and add to my view count. Anyway, full disclosure, I have yet to finish Nier Automata, and I have no doubt that when I’ve finished the Route I’m currently on (Route C), I will feel moved to bump this game up my list a couple of places.

That’s because Nier seems to direct itself towards my tastes; rich sense of atmosphere; hack-and-slash Platinum games gameplay; intriguing pseudo-philosophy and a great sense of humour. All these things combined made my first play through of Automata an absolute delight. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game like this that speaks so strongly to my sensibilities. I can’t say that Automata does any of those things the best, but that it combines them all into one discreet package was a wonder.

However, I do have a bit of a problem with games that don’t value my time, and making me play through the same campaign twice was an annoyance that seemed unnecessary to me. It was an indulgence that served to artificially elongate the play time for reasons that could have been dealt with a hundred more time effective ways.

It’s not just that Automata didn’t value my time, however, it’s also that on replaying a game the faults always become more glaring. Combat in Nier lacks some of the depth of other Platinum games, and the game will occasionally throw you in combat scenarios that its systems feel unprepared to deal with. Endings that come out of nowhere appear clever when first encountered, but can become an annoyance when triggered unintentionally. The atmosphere of areas such as the Amusement Park are fantastic, but these areas are criminally under-utilised, and going through the same motions in them twice is not a fix for this.

Those problems aside, Nier Automata deserves to be celebrated for everything it does right, because there’s not only a lot of it, but the way it puts it together serves for something that may lack a bit of polish, but is wholly original and satisfies most of my personal desires for what I want in a video game.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 12.13.44

The game that’s topping most end of the year lists lands here on mine, but not for lack of trying. In fact, releasing the second DLC pack for the game at the end of the year really made me reconsider not putting this game at #1, because the world of Breath of the Wild really is something special.

I don’t think I’ve had a game impress me this much in its first couple of hours as Breath of the Wild; Hyrule is for sure the best open world I’ve ever played in a video game, and it’s almost enough to justify this game as my favourite of the year. The amount of things to do is immense, so much so that you’ll often find yourself distracted from the central Legend of Zelda quest in order to find things hidden away that would be main events in lesser games. Dragons are simply optional events hinted at by NPCs, waiting to be fought for their treasure. Important weapons, items and shops are stumbled across by accident or read about in rumour columns. And almost everything is left in the hands of the player; how you want to approach the deepest combat system in a Zelda game to date; how you want to tackle the bosses; how many of the oft-ingenious puzzle shrines you want to seek out. The best dungeon in the game, if not the entire series, Hyrule Castle, takes advantage of this freedom and condenses it into one compact space with a central end goal of the final boss.

However, play enough of the game and some of the novelty wears thin. While Hyrule Castle may be the best dungeon in the series, the Divine Beasts are some of the worst, and their challenge becomes laughable once you’re far enough into the game. Shrines and Korok seeds wear out their novelty as well, and since they become the only reward for exploration at a certain point in the game, so much emphasis is placed on the journey as opposed to the destination that even a fantastic open world like Hyrule can’t quite bear the burden of it.

It’s for this reason that I can’t wait for whatever the sequel that expands on this game to come out. Because Breath of the Wild comes very close to perfection, but falls apart when it has to be played for so long. However, the problems can be fixed, and Breath of the Wild will, I imagine, continue to be influential for not just the Zelda series, but for every open world game for years to come.

(If you want to read more of my thoughts on BotW, I wrote a full review of it here).

2. Night in the Woods

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 12.27.30

It’s pretty rare that games make me cry. It’s not that I’m some sort of macho man who never cries at anything; films and tv manage it too often for me to be comfortable to admit it. But games don’t, and I think that’s for a variety of reasons; their subject matter often revolves around topics that don’t lend themselves to tugging many heartstrings and the writing often takes a backseat to gameplay.

In Night in the Woods, the opposite is true; gameplay here takes a backseat to the truly excellent writing. But to discount the game as a cartoon where you have to press buttons to move the story along really sells the game short, because a lot of Night in the Woods’ emotional engagement requires it to be a game. Choosing who to spend time with puts a lot of impact when they eventually reveal their problems to you, and the player involvement in certain mini-games and events does make a difference in getting you to care more easily about the characters.

But what struck me most about Night in the Woods; what earns it this high spot, is that the writing in the game is astoundingly good. It’s incredibly natural for a video game about talking animals finding dead bodies and investigating ghosts, although where it really shines is in the smaller character moments and anecdotes; it wasn’t the slightly overly dramatic ending that induced tears from me, it was talking to a friend after her emotional breakdown in a party. Those small moments are what fuel this game, and what propel it to such heights.

1. Super Mario Odyssey

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 15.59.34

I talked in the last entry about games eliciting sadness, but I think that pure joy is underrated. Lots more emphasis is often placed on the creative endeavour of making people sad, downtrodden; you’re more likely to get my critical praise if you can make me cry or think about how shit the world is than if you can make me happy. And yet, I think it might be harder to make me joyfully happy. Like, giddy with happiness. And Super Mario Odyssey is the only game this year to make me feel that way.

Odyssey‘s campaign zips along in a breezy 9 hours, and pretty much every minute of that is a wonder. Bursting with creativity, Super Mario Odyssey never lets up, always providing you with something new to do; somewhere new to go and someone new to capture. I think quite a few games this year (Persona 5, BotW, Nier (to an extent)) suffer from going on for too long; where all the discovery of the game’s strengths are front-loaded into the first 15 hours, and then the game struggles to find ways to amuse the player. Odyssey‘s tightly controlled campaign never lets that happen to you. It introduces the central mechanic in the first stage, then goes on to building a 9 hour campaign where you get new chances to use that simple, satisfying mechanic of the hat throw every minute.

And when the game is finished, once the credits have rolled, the game continues to parcel out its surprises; each stage is given a whole bunch of new collectables, and new stages are added after you scour the inventively made miniature sandboxes for moons. I think those seeking to find all 900+ Moons might wear out the game beyond its breaking point, but I don’t think it was ever built to be played that way; the secret final level unlocks after only 500.

But even those who purposefully stretch the game have been rewarded; pulling off difficult secret techniques is recognised by hidden rewards from the developers, and those who are content to see only as much as they need will still be able to enjoy that joyful campaign. I seriously can’t think of any complaints to levy at this game; it’s that good, and a deserving recipient of my game of the year.

Just an FYI that today marks the two year anniversary of Toatali Reviews! Hope you’ve all enjoyed this year of content, and here’s to another year of annoyingly long reviews about pop culture! (PS. make sure to check my twitter for more of my ramblings about the past year and other shit).

Advertisements

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…

danganronpa3-3

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.

vlcsnap-2017-08-03-10h51m20s466

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.

maxresdefault

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.

danganronpa-v3-01

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.

Hoshi's_body_eaten_by_piranhas

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.

Kaede_Hangman's_Gambit_2

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.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Demo_20170706140134

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.

maxresdefault1

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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 18.16.55

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.

danganronpa-v3-demo

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

 

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.

madarame
‘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.

december_screenshot_2017_05_10_19_26_37

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.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

C8A4H1CVMAA5HgI

Medium story spoilers follow. I’d advise playing the game before reading this review, but I try to avoid spoiling anything major. 

I feel like I’ve come to Breath of the Wild a bit too late to add anything meaningful to the discussion, but this does at least mean that the inevitable backlash has already started. That doesn’t mean people are starting to think the game isn’t very good, because that would be silly, but people have at least started to reconsider what may and may not work about the gameplay. I myself (as always) will try and justify some sort of complex middle ground; my firm belief is that this game is a masterpiece, but elements of the gameplay remain very deeply flawed and need to be discussed in order to fully understand why the game has become a little bit more divisive. I think it’s also worth giving a bit of my background with Zelda; I’ve played all of the 3D titles, and my personal favourite is Majora’s Mask, something which remains true even after playing Breath of the Wild. I think that’s more because Majora’s Mask fits more nicely with what I love about Zelda games, as opposed to me thinking that it’s a better made game than Breath of the Wild.

breath_of_the_wild_temple_of_time_banner__large

I think that this review should probably start with looking at the game’s starting area; the Great Plateau, and then expand outwards. The Plateau is one of the best starting areas in a video game, because it functions so perfectly as a tutorial without the player really realising it. It’s a locked off area, with set tasks to check off that give you your basic abilities you’ll use throughout, but the freedom it provides is enough that it never starts to feel like this is some chore you have to get through in order to start the game proper. Just leaving the Shrine of Resurrection teaches the player a lot. You wake up in a sci-fi looking room, and collect the Sheikah Slate. It’s the first thing the player is handed, which instantly signifies its importance. The room you’re in makes use of the Blue and Orange colour scheme that you use in the rest of the game to inform you when something has been activated. In the second room the game hands you some clothes in a chest, and by not equipping them instantly the game teaches you about inventory management, something that’ll become extremely necessary to know about throughout the adventure. When you get outside (while first having to learn how to run, jump and climb to be able to leave), the game wrests control out of your hands in order to show you a few things. The first is the sheer scope of the game world, the second an old man in the near vicinity, and the third a broken down church. Here we see three of the game’s main tenants; spectacle and freedom (which I’ll group together under the vague heading of ‘Hyrule’), story, and something we’ll call ‘atmosphere’. Two of those three things are what make the game into what I consider a ‘masterpiece’, so make a mental note of those, because we’ll be returning to them in a bit. I’ll quickly say a few more things about the Plateau before I continue, because I think it’s an extremely clever opening area. The game introduces you to so much in this small area; Shrines, Towers, enemy encampments, the four abilities, temperature variations, guardians, optional mini-bosses. The entire Mt. Hylia segment shows just how the game lets you approach challenges in a variety of different ways. I sprinted up the mountain after cooking some spicy food, unaware that a torch would heat you up, or even that you could get some warm clothing from the old man to make the challenge much easier. The Great Plateau has so much of my respect, I initially thought I could frame the entire review around this one area, and leave out talking about the others. However, that would do the main game a disservice, because there’s so much more to talk about that I’ve ended up feeling extremely overwhelmed.

Let’s use gameplay as a jumping off point for this review, because from there we can segue nicely into some of the main gameplay problems I have with Breath of the Wild (insert jumping off from the Great Plateau related joke here). I think what a lot of complaints have focused on is combat, but I think that’s the wrong area to direct complaints at. Yes, weapons break; but I feel that any focus on the negatives of that system remove an appreciation for it that I’ve gained from extensive play. You see, combat in other Zelda games was almost all sword play; the bow and arrow got some use, but it was mainly swinging around a sword. I think Skyward Sword was probably the best and most varied sword combat is going to get (even though that had its problems). Twilight Princess attempted to make sword combat more complex without motion controls, but there no enemies fully took advantage of the optional extra moves. Breath of the Wild manages to fix the staleness of combat in a few ways. Firstly; swords aren’t always the optimal way to go. Other weapon types may be more useful in a given combat scenario, from bows to shield parries to magic rods. You can also opt to not use weapons at all; upgrading the ‘stasis’ ability allows you to freeze enemies in place, while a well-timed bomb attached to an octo balloon and floated towards an enemy camp may mean you never have to get too close to the action. And I’m sure you’ve all seen the video of a Cuckoo used as a weapon. Breath of the Wild aims to emphasise freedom in all ways, and combat is no exception. When you do choose to use weapons, the game still finds a way to make combat interesting. Weapons breaking changes the flow and feel of combat; unlike in TP where no enemies took advantage of the complex moves; here all enemies take advantage of weapons breaking. They can break your weapon; you can steal theirs. The complexity and variety here comes from a frantic system of weapon exchanging. You also have to be aware of your environment. Because most of the fights in BotW take place outside, on craggy cliffs and near huge lakes, you have to be careful of falling off. Or, you could freeze your foe and blow them off the cliff with a gust of wind from a Korok leaf. Enemies are equipped with an astonishing AI that allows them to react to these different scenarios, and their designs are all filled with personality. It’s a shame that the variety of enemy is extremely lacking, and towards the end game, only a handful of enemy types pose any threat (namely, the Lynel, Stone Talus, Hinox and Silver variations of the standard enemy types.) The threat is even more reduced by the ability to duck into a menu and eat away at various healing items. I do wish the short eating animation was played during combat rather than in-menu. This would reduce time spent in menus and give eating an element of strategy. The complaints I mainly hear about combat are that good weapons break too easily and thus use of them is discouraged, limiting your freedom to use those weapons. I respectfully disagree with this notion, although I suppose if you play that way that cannot be helped. Personally I found myself never at a shortage for good weapons – and late-game combat so requires them that I was unable to ‘save my best stuff and never use it’. I would like to give a quick shout out to the problems of the Blood Moon. Cool idea – did it need an unskippable cutscene?

C8A69bmU8AEX-6Q

I’m going to devote a separate paragraph to the Guardians, who are, in my mind, so effectively terrifying as a piece of enemy design. It isn’t a unique idea in open world games; an enemy that is extremely powerful at the beginning, but can be defeated with relative ease with the right tools, but BotW does it very well. Guardians are very creepy spider like creatures (apparently influenced by the design of the Octoroks from the first Zelda game), that can be seen from a huge distance, and target you with a deadly laser as you desperately try and run away. They’re this semi relentless force that pursues you until either you’re dead or have hidden well enough that it loses sight of you. Given that they mainly appear out in the world, the change in music they bring calls to mind the Silent Realms of Skyward Sword (which incidentally also had robots from the past named Guardians). It’s no wonder they’ve become a mascot for the game. I think, though, the Guardians are a perfect example of the problem of combat scaling in this game. The difficulty curve in this game seems to go strange ways. The game is perhaps toughest nearer the beginning. While defeating Guardians with a single arrow is satisfying as all hell, it makes other enemies (with the exception perhaps, of White Lynels), less threatening as a result. So the further you play, the more pointless combat becomes – which is a problem for progression. Luckily, before this becomes a real issue you’re in a position to face Ganon, and the weapon durability system does still add some needed excitement to post-game fights. But towards the end of the experience, it became more and more noticeable. That, I think, is why so many people love Eventide, because it strips back the player to the basics to make combat difficult again, even for those some way into the game. But I still don’t think it’s quite enough. I think this sort of weariness with the game structure is quite important, so it’s a theme I’ll revisit.

So with combat out of the way, let’s talk a bit about some of the other stuff you’ll be doing when exploring Hyrule. One thing that I noticed was a huge amount of ‘Nintendo polish’ when it came to animations. Link and other NPCs had a variety of animations for things that I wouldn’t initially think merited a separate animation (look at the number of ways you can mount your horse, or fall off a cliff etc). The world is clearly huge, and so a lot of thought has been put into how you move around it. There is, of course, quick travel for traversing large distances, but I found myself mainly shying away from that. There is more to be found by adventuring than simply warping from tower to shrine, desert to forest. Running throughout the map would be torture, however, and so there is an extremely well made system of animal transport. Horses are the main beast you will be riding, and as such it is with them you will spend most of your time. My first horse, named Aziz, (guess which stand-up comedian’s show I was watching at the time) lasted the entire journey and was an invaluable companion. The initial taming process is frustrating for a strong horse like Aziz, and they will often do their best to disobey you and run straight into the beam of a passing Guardian. However, past that initial hurdle the riding process becomes much smoother and more enjoyable. I’m not sure, however, if it’s worth the hassle of having to fully tame a horse and ‘max out your bond’ in order to ride properly. It doesn’t gain much extra realism, nor does it enamour me to my horse. I would have liked Aziz whether I had to go through his teenage phase or not. Other animals can also be ridden, just not registered; I rode deer, bears and skeletons during my time in Hyrule, and this variety was a novelty that didn’t wear off. One secret horse I found after waiting at the top of a mountain for 15 minutes on a hunch is one of many of the game’s best hidden surprises. Another movement issue I want to address is the stamina meter. This is laughably small at the start of the game, and the upgrades are simply not lucrative enough to be acceptable. Skyward Sword had a stamina meter of roughly the same size, but its world was littered with stamina fruit; its areas were much smaller in scale, and it had upgrades that could make it temporarily infinite. When climbing (a process that could have been boring, but instead becomes an oddly satisfying and relaxing endeavour), the stamina meter is a nagging concern when it shouldn’t be. Many people have also bought up the issue of rain, which is a real problem in certain areas, halting progress when it shouldn’t. It’s a shame, in a game so built around exploration, that movement is halted and frustrated by a core mechanic of the game, and something that could be so easily fixed.

C8A4XwnVwAIOtyJ

I think when we’re discussing problems, we need to talk about player motivation. I think that Super Bunnyhop’s video on this game explains a lot of this better than I can, but please, bear with me. Aside from the main objectives (that is, destroy Ganon and free the Divine Beasts), the game motivates you to travel around its map in a variety of different ways. The first of these I really like; the promise of something new and weird. Sometimes you stumble upon something that you’ve just never even heard of before; a scenic spot; a weird NPC with a story to tell; a massive dragon; a secret shop, or even a hidden mechanic (there’s a statue in Hateno village that allows you to swap stat increases, but the game just never tells you about it). This stuff is great because it all feels unique and exciting and natural. Even if the dragon will eventually become just a way to farm materials, for someone like me uninterested in that, it’s just an amazing spectacle that the game will never tell you about except in rumour. The problem is when we get to shrines, Korok seeds (and, to a certain extent, Divine Beasts.) I’m going to tackle Korok seeds first, because as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to say about shrines. There are 900 Korok seeds, all hidden around the world in small puzzles. When you see a suspicious area, there will always at least be a small Korok seed puzzle hidden there. But the rewards for this are diminishing once you reach a certain point and your inventory is big enough to be manageable. For bows and shields, I only really had to upgrade about 3 times before I was happy with my inventory size. At this point, the reward of a Korok seed becomes null. Shrines are a bit more complex, because a new shirine means an extremely clever new puzzle to discover. But there is something still a bit dull about finding a shrine past a certain point. Yes; the puzzle will be sure to be clever, and the reward inside useful. But the aesthetic of a shrine is always the same; and the same goes for the Divine Beasts, although at least they normally have some clever aesthetic gimmick (such as flying over an area, which appears to move around, or starting off shrouded in darkness). So doing a shrine quest to find a shrine may be fun, may be clever, may even be ingenious. But if a shrine is your only reward, then the focus is placed more on the discovery of the reward than the reward itself. Which, in a way, is fine. In fact, I think an emphasis on the puzzle, or the journey, rather than what’s at the end is a better solution than a dull or easy puzzle with some grand reward. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for both. It might be much easier to create 120 identical looking Shrines, but for the player it makes the discovery stagnant. With the Divine Beasts, once again, making a smaller puzzle room rather than a sprawling dungeon may be easier, but it diminishes the excitement for the player, especially by their fourth beast. I think, then the big problem with Breath of the Wild is that there’s too much in it. Which is an odd complaint to level at an open-world game. Normally the complaint is the opposite. But here, one can’t help but feel that were the number of shrines and Korok seeds and side-quests[1] scaled down, but more focus put on making each one feel special and unique, the game wouldn’t start to stagnate as much as it does. Incredibly, the journey of travelling around to find things does remain interesting throughout, and it’s that I’ll get too next. But sadly, the feeling of discovery wears out its welcome far sooner than the game wants it to. And therein lies the fault at the heart of Breath of the Wild.

C8A43aZVYAA1bkH

But hang on – I introduced this review by claiming the game was still a masterpiece. So let’s turn our attention to what it gets right first. And given that we ended the negative section on shrines, let’s turn our attention to why Shrines are actually a good thing for the Zelda series. There are 120 puzzle rooms, and much like Mario levels, they often teach you a small way to solve a puzzle, then expand on that in multiple ways while increasing the challenge. The way the puzzles rely solely on your base toolkit learned in the Great Plateau means that the designers can have fun and play around with that toolkit in each shrine. What’s more, the puzzles can be solved in multiple ways. There’s often a “correct” or “intended” way, but that isn’t the way you have to complete it. Because of the way the shrines give you a situation and a goal, and aim for you to complete it in a variety of ways, they still fit within the game’s basic ethos, despite taking place in a mini basement room. The Divine Beasts are, in a way, more like giant shrines than proper dungeons, and while I complained about this earlier, I will say that they do what they aim to do incredibly well. Puzzles that allow you to manipulate the environment tend to mess with my head in the good way, and these often have very clever solutions. The structure of all of them is annoyingly similar, but I’ll take most chagrin with the bosses. Past Zelda bosses have been a mixed bag, ranging from the incredible (Koloktos) to the dull (Tentalus)[2], but the Breath of the Wild bosses tend towards the middle in terms of strategy, and towards the dull in terms of design. Their red-haired clusterfuck of a design is shared with the boss Calamity Ganon, but at least that is made up for with Dark Beast Ganon, which is a fantastic final boss. I will at least commend the Bosses for making use of the environment of the Divine Beasts, which you were forced to learn during the puzzle section.

I still haven’t quite nailed down what makes this game so good yet, however. In order to do so, we’ll have to turn to the big topic (literally) – Hyrule itself. Hyrule is huge, and yet it does maintain that balance of large open spaces and having tons of stuff to find. In the social media age, Hyrule had to be massive. The game developers knew that secrets would be easily shared across the internet, yet despite seeing some cool new Zelda detail on my Twitter feed every morning, I would find three more by myself while playing the game in the afternoon. Many people have filled their reviews with anecdotes, but I feel like that might take up a bit too much time, and really, isn’t as interesting to you as it is to me. But despite my talk of diminishing returns during end-game exploration, for those first few days (if not weeks, depending on your play-style), the magical feel of exploration is something unlike anything else in modern gaming. Exploration is aided by climbing, which transforms what would be an impassable boundary in other games, to just another route, or a shortcut, or the only path up a mountain, on the top of which lies a mini-boss that could have been left undisturbed even after months of play-time. Climbing also allows you to glide, which means that a certain amount of the flow is going up in order to move across. Forcing you up again means giving you more stuff to see and explore, and so the emphasis on vertical spaces actually expands the amount you see and find. The amount I was sidetracked because of this is laughable, even though the game almost weirdly discourages you from this with constant reminders that ‘Zelda’s power is diminishing.’, something I imagine most players will ignore.

C8A4mYpVUAAvdIa

The open-endedness does actually contain a “proper” Zelda game within it, in the vein of modern 3D Zeldas à la Ocarina of Time. You see this during the passages to Zora’s Domain or the Goron village, where you’re slightly more boxed in that usually. Of course, there are still ways to circumvent the challenges faced along the way, but you can tell the game is more reluctant about you doing this at this point. I think I might divert a bit here to mention the story, something I was deeply unimpressed by. The characters are dull and uninteresting, the voice acting mainly awful, and during the main quest it all got a bit too repetitive. I liked the emphasis on the past, which ties in nicely with something I’m about to say, and the memory system made a good use of the player’s memories of areas to tell a story, but ultimately I felt rather unengaged. But the focus is so rarely confined to the story that for the most part it didn’t matter too much.

So what makes Hyrule in Breath of the Wild special? I don’t actually think it is that it is both large and full of stuff to do. No, I think what makes Hyrule, and to a large extent all of Breath of the Wild fantastic, is its emphasis on Romanticism. Remember at the beginning when I talked about the Great Plateau and asked for you to make a mental note of the three things that the game showed to you? Well, I think we’ve discussed two of them now; “Hyrule” and “Story”, with lots of diversions in between (see what I did there?) So that just leaves the third. In the introduction I called it vaguely ‘atmosphere’ and presented the Temple of Time as the game’s example of it. What I think it actually is, is Romanticism. Romanticism is an artistic movement from the 1800s, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for the topic shows a familiar image; Casper David Freidrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. The Romantic movement emphasised solitude among nature, and Freidrich’s image is a direct parallel to Link, back facing the camera, looking out towards Hyrule on top of a cliff, alone. The ruined Temple of Time is also Romantic imagery – calling to mind Turner’s Tintern Abbey or Wordsworth’s poetry tackling similar imagery. Nature is emphasised by the Ghibli-esque art style as well, with echoes of Princess Mononoke’s lush expansive fields (you can even ride a deer, and Impa looks plucked straight out of Spirited Away). Much of Breath of the Wild’s content stems from these two Romantic ideas. The player is often alone; there is no fairy or boat companion to guide you. Towns are spread far apart, and many of the main NPCs you meet are dead and forever confined to solitude. The past is clearly a huge influencer for the game; most of its important story takes place 100 years before the events of Breath of the Wild. Huge sublime man-made structures destroyed by time are scattered across Hyrule, many of them almost irrelevant to the story, but that help in creating a Romantic atmosphere. Even the technologic looking Sheikah towers; robots; shrines are actually inspired by Japanese Jōmon period designs, from around 300BCE. The idea of the past even resonates through the beautiful soundtrack, which feature broken up versions of familiar Zelda tunes.

C6LWdtmVUAAYXlK

Note that this isn’t a concept unique to Breath of the Wild; other Zelda games have dealt with a similar theme; in fact, the Zelda series may be built around it. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are two 3D Zelda games that stand out for not taking place in a completely destroyed Hyrule, and Ocarina changes that half way through while Majora takes place on the verge of one. Wind Waker features a submerged Hyrule; in Twilight Princess, Zant has taken control, and in Skyward Sword much of the land (that which will eventually become Hyrule) is taken over by monsters. Even the first Zelda is all about a lone wanderer in a destroyed looking world. Most of the people in that game hide in caves, forcing you to find them. So Zelda has always been a series obsessed with the past, but I think Breath of the Wild takes it to a new level. If I had to overstretch my welcome, I would say that it almost gels with Romantic preoccupation with the perceived threat of the industrial revolution; in that the Guardians are technological threats that become a threat to humanity and nature (perhaps this can be seen in the first great victim of Ocarina of Time; the Deku Tree). But even without pushing that idea to its limits, the Romantic influence on Breath of the Wild is the clearest it has ever been in Zelda, and it’s that which makes this game, for me at least, really special. Because the nostalgic fantasy Romantic adventure is an extremely appealing idea that has persisted for a long time, and this game feels like the natural embodiment and apex of that idea.

I do worry that in trying to explain the success of Breath of the Wild’s atmosphere I’ve veered too much into pointless theoretical discussion, but the idea of a game’s ‘atmosphere’ is both extremely important and extremely nebulous, so I hope I’ve at least made you look at the game slightly differently. There’s so much more to talk about here that I haven’t even scratched the surface with this review. But that’s partly the beauty and partly the curse of Breath of the Wild. And yes, I do think it’s too big and, towards the end, too familiar. But I also feel that to diminish its importance because of that is foolish. Yes – we need to examine a game’s faults, but focusing too much on them negates the underlying achievement made by Breath of the Wild. I hope then, that I have managed to, through this review, justify my position; that The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild is a flawed game, at times deeply so, but that it is also one of the best games that I have ever got to play.


[1] Again, Bunnyhop talks about these best, and I don’t want to get too much into them, but they are mostly very fetch-questy – i.e. go find x number of items for me.

[2] Both, interestingly, from Skyward Sword. That’s a game I’d quite like to talk about some day.

The Pokemon Sun and Moon Conundrum

pokemon_sun_moon_pikachu_z_move

It usually takes me around a few weeks before I’ve moved on to my second playthrough of a Pokemon game. It took me until the start of January before I’d even finished Pokemon Sun and Moon, and this has nothing to do with the length of the game. Instead, it was constant stopping and starting: a loss of the interest that has pulled me through Pokemon games I consider much less accomplished than this one. In this review, I want to see if I can work out why Sun and Moon have caused such a roadblock for me. So, it might be better to think of this less as a standard review, and more of a personal process for my own interest. Have I just fallen out with the Pokemon formula, or is it something that Sun and Moon have done specifically?

I think it’s important then, to start at the core of Sun and Moon and see what, if anything, has changed there. As I see it, the three main aspects of every Pokemon game are battling, exploring and to a lesser extent, the Pokemon themselves. Yes, trading and social aspects are important to the experience, but I don’t see them as core per se. Let’s start with battling, because for the casual observer this has remained pretty static throughout the series. Pokemon Sun and Moon makes a lot of quality of life adjustments to the battling system that I really liked. The effectiveness system streamlines the process for those who have yet to memorise type-effectiveness charts, and the stat chart is just helpful for those not wanting to keep track of those things in their head. It’s nice to see Pokemon embrace what was standard in Pokemon Showdown for years. The biggest and most heavily advertised change to the battling system is the Z-Moves, and these sit less easily with me. In theory, they improve significantly on Generation 6’s ‘Mega Evolution’ concept, while still keeping much of the idea behind that. A held item that makes your Pokemon stronger is a good idea, because it forces the player to sacrifice the longer term benefit of a held item like a Rocky Helmet or a berry for a shorter term large advantage of a Z Move. Unfortunately, the Z Moves themselves are let down by a few crucial things. The most glaringly obvious is their complete disruption of pacing caused by long animations. These things are 32 seconds long on average, which is much too long to go without player input, and when you’ve seen the animation happen multiple times before. What makes this doubly frustrating is that X/Y already came up with a solution to this problem; when the game first starts up you see the full transformation animation, but subsequent mega evolutions skip that animation in favour of a much shorter one. Sun/Moon could have easily employed a system like this but fails to do so, and thus discourages the player from using a significant mechanic. I was also slightly annoyed that Z Moves weren’t that powerful. One hit KO moves would be silly and overpowered, but having to sit through that animation for a move that is ultimately not that powerful is more frustrating than anticipated. Of course, this is one of the more minor quibbles with the mechanic, which I regard as a step-up from Mega Evolution. I’ve seen Z-Moves get some negative press, and besides the animation problem, I don’t see them as anything but a good idea; just inventive enough to seem like a revitalisation, just not powerful enough to seem like overkill.

The battle system, then, isn’t that much of a problem. Trainer battles, however, are. It’s worrying when I can count on one hand the number of trainers I remember having a full team of 6 Pokemon during the campaign. Even in OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire, some of the easiest games in the franchise, there was a trainer class (the breeder) which specialised in having full teams. That isn’t to say the game is too easy – some boss battles pose a challenge, especially the Totem Pokemon battles that you face at the end of every trial. Still, what this does represent is that the standard trainer battles are quicker and less involved, as well as simply easier. When travelling the region, they become less like fun challenges and more annoying roadblocks – a decrease in difficulty means that battling loses a lot of its draw. When battling trainers becomes an annoyance, there’s something that’s gone wrong. I did like the inclusion of trainer quotas on routes as a quick fix solution to this problem. The idea of this is that defeating every trainer on a route allows you to battle a stronger trainer, often with a reward at the end. This is a basic solution – and from a theoretical design perspective it works, but practically this does nothing to stop the core problem that battling becomes rote without a challenge. Yes, this game’s difficult bosses represent a step-up in difficulty from previous games in the series, and I respect that. However, in a game that fixes many of its predecessor’s problems, this is one that annoys me when not addressed in a meaningful way. Still, I got through those games so I doubt that this is my main problem with Sun and Moon. I think to address that we should move onto exploration.

There’s a lot to unpack in this one, so this might take a while. Alola itself is the new region that Sun/Moon take place in, and for all extents and purposes, it’s one of the best region designs for quite a while. The multiple islands lead nicely into a non-standard, less linear route path, and it helps that the islands themselves have routes that are twisty and curve around landmarks and cities to create fun paths that allow for different terrain and environment to naturally flow into one another one a single pathway to your destination. It also allows for route design with branching pathways and hidden secrets. It still relies perhaps too heavily on the old trick of a choice between grass or trainer battle, but the idea I talked about earlier of the ‘route boss’, means that some trainers are almost hidden out of the way. Some routes even incorporate small gimmicks, such as finding a number of hidden Snufful in the grass. It’s also worth mentioning how lovely Alola looks – the series finally returns to what feels like truly dynamic light patterns in the sky, so that the changes in time are really marked (I played Moon version, for reference). No, the route design still doesn’t match up to the lofty heights of Sinnoh, but perhaps what I was most impressed by was how natural the routes felt to traverse. In X/Y, the designers seemed to have made routes using the grid based philosophy that worked for the top down games on the DS, where routes felt boxed in by trees, but that was a necessary limitation of the system’s hardware. On 3DS, when those routes were transplanted into a 3D landscape it felt odd and boxy. Meanwhile, Sun/Moon’s routes actually manage to feel properly free from this – maybe due to the removal of the grid from the map. So not only do islands and routes feel more natural, you can explore them more naturally as well. So far, so good.

It’s a shame, then, that the game seems determined to hamper your enjoyment of its beautifully designed region with some of the most egregious progression blocks and markers I’ve seen in a Pokemon game. Literal road blocks prevent you from moving to certain areas (getting rid of any of the creative semi-excuses from previous games.) However, these road blocks have existed for a while in previous games, if less commonly. What I was more annoyed by were the flag checkpoints on the map, which have much to do with the game’s new found emphasis on telling a compelling story. Other Pokemon games have always given you markers as to where to go next; usually in the forms of the gym battles. Literal markers, then, much like literal walls, aren’t necessarily something new, as much as they are making a pre-existing feature less subtle. Nevertheless, the flag checkpoints are symptomatic of a creeping problem that I’ve been mentioning throughout the review series that I made; the sacrificial trade off Pokemon has been making by giving preference to story over exploration. This was at its most egregious in X/Y, where the story had nothing to offer, but here the story has really taken over – it’s the subject of each and every flag, and if it’s not a boring story battle against a number of Skull/Aether grunts, then it’s a boring story cutscene that aims to provide some semblance of character development to Sun/Moon’s expansive cast of characters.

208721_screenshot_02_l

The story of Sun/Moon has received a lot of praise from critics, but I fail to see exactly why, except in terms compared too other Pokemon games. Yes, the story in Sun/Moon is miles ahead of any other Pokemon game. However, in my opinion it doesn’t reach the heights required to affect the gameplay in the way it does. Yes, Lillie’s arc is strong, but other aspects of the story don’t quite stack up. Lusamine’s story is fun, but rob her of enough agency that it robs some of the impact from her as a villain. In that respect, Guzma and Team Skull feel like the stronger villains – their slapstick routine isn’t as threatening, but it works just enough; when they were on screen I wanted to spend time in their company, whereas the Aether Foundation were nothing more than an obvious twist. The crux of the story, then, revolves around Lillie, who’s undoubtedly a likeable protagonist, but her plot also annoys me in its follow up effects. You see, we don’t play as Lillie, we play as bland smiley boy/girl who runs around chasing Lillie, and yet still somehow fights all her fights. The game, then, struggles to maintain a weird balance between gameplay and story, trying desperately to have two cakes and eat them both. Focusing fully on Lillie’s story might have meant a named playable protagonist, or at least a situation where Lillie could solve her problems without fighting. Instead you do the grunt work for Lillie while she picks up the emotional development, which feels less earned – a compromise. I think this compromise comes as a result of Pokemon being unable to leave the core of the past behind, while being content to change the edges. What I mean by this is that Pokemon will never stop being about a nameless protagonist wandering around a region, catching and fighting wild beasts, but that doesn’t stop the directors from attempting to enforce change that runs contrary to that core idea, the best example being the one of a story focus.

Those features, then, make up the core of Pokemon Sun/Moon, but the game is pleasingly stuffed full of content. Sadly, I’m not the sort of game reviewer to pore through every little feature, but I will give a cursory glance over some of the features that stuck out to me. The new Pokemon introduced seem exceptionally well designed – they all have a simple aesthetic and a priority on the animation of the 3D models to give them character, which works surprisingly well in game. Some of the Alola forms are a little questionable and I think they could have pushed the idea much further, but some work nicely as a proof of concept. The removal of gyms was touted as a ‘major shake-up’ for the series, but I’m not sure that it is. Instead, gyms are replaced by often annoying, mostly mercifully short mini-games which end in fun boss battles against super-powered Pokemon. Totem Pokemon are a welcome addition, but I’m not sure if the removal of gyms was necessary, other than to give a refreshing face-lift to the franchise. The best change is clearly the removal of HM moves, which is the sort of common sense move that should have been done ages ago, but inexplicably wasn’t. I think the only thing left to talk about is the Rotom Pokedex, which is a forgettable kind of annoying – a clear send up of the once more popular Yokai Watch.

So then, what’s the conclusion? Why couldn’t I finish Sun/Moon quickly? Let me be clear with one thing here – these are good games. In fact, I like these games. Probably a lot, when I think about it. I’ve spent about 2000 words mostly complaining, but the core Pokemon formula topped off with a multitude of clever quality of life upgrades and a few cosmetic changes that allow that core some room to breathe will always make for an enjoyable experience. No, they aren’t perfect Pokemon games (HeartGold/SoulSilver already did that) but they are good, a marked step up from X/Y.

Annoyingly, this still fails to get to the root of my problem with the game. If you’ll excuse me from getting a bit meta, I had to rewrite this review multiple times in the vague hope that I’d reach some sort of personal conclusion as to why I wasn’t the greatest fan of the game. Each individual aspect I could work out my feeling towards, but as a sum of its parts, I was left slightly clueless. It could be, and this is something I’ve seriously considered, a result of a fatigue on my behalf towards Pokemon. Whether that’s caused by a year of replaying Pokemon games for review, or a lifetime of playing Pokemon games for fun, seeing a game like this that makes mild but insubstantial steps to improving on a well-trod path isn’t maybe enough to pull me through. Which might be unfair on the game. I do sometimes think that perhaps the way I reviewed this is completely unfair; I focused a lot on the negatives, and framed this review in a negative light. Not that anyone looks to me for a critical consensus, but that I care some about how I present my views. Clearly all reviews of this nature will be subjective, that’s in the nature of a review, but that doesn’t mean a reviewer shouldn’t strive for balance when framing his argument. This review has caused me a lot of existential grief; in case you couldn’t tell. At least it came in a lot shorter than I originally had it…

Yeah, that was… a post. I guess. I think I rambled a bit towards the end there because I was so fed up with the whole process (I think I rewrote this review maybe 3 times in total?) Anyway, my review of The Good Place should be up within a few days, so look forward to that (Spoilers – it’s good)

Top 16 of 2016

10creat-wilderpeople-2

This time of the year is when everyone and their mum comes up with their best things of the year, but you should listen to me because… um, I write it down I guess? In all seriousness, this year has been pretty good for entertainment, even if it hasn’t been so good for the rest of the world. This post will focus on the stuff that takes your mind off of it all though; Films, Video Games and TV. So without further adieu…

Best Films of the Year

Before I get into this; no, obviously I haven’t seen every good film this year. In fact, some films I’ve heard are great haven’t even come to the UK yet (see; La La Land). Also, the order is pretty arbitrary.

6) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Spinal Tap will never be topped as musical mockumentary, but this film comes pretty damn close. Much like the David Brent movie, the songs are one of the best things about this film, but even outside the Lonely Island’s usual musical comedy genius is a nifty little film that starts as a modern pop-star parody and ends in a glorious and over the top musical number starring the power of friendship and Michael Bolton. The film’s genius comes in hiding perhaps a rather standard plot in a guise of flashy songs and surreal humour, much as how it’s star Conner4Real masks a simple personality behind the veil of his superstardom. Perhaps the funniest gag in the film though is when Nas says of the song Karate Guy; ‘that song changed my life’, in the most deadpan tone he can manage when talking about a song who’s lyrics contain ‘We’re rolling with our friends, All over town, But we’re all in the car, We’re not rolling on the ground’. Brilliant.

5) Train to Busan

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-21-21-28

I don’t watch many zombie films, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know a good one when I see it. Train to Busan takes a simple premise (zombies, but on a train) and extends it to its natural conclusion. The zombies move around in a thrillingly creepy way, their bodies twisting in a way that makes them seem like they were filmed in stop motion. The train itself is a fantastic setting, and it makes sense that the film is reluctant to move far away from it; it condenses the action into tight corridors and spaces, and makes the horde of zombies piling over each other an ever more terrifying sight as there’s only one way to run. The traditional zombie movie clichés may all be present, but the setting helps make them feel fresh, as does the acting and cinematography. These things come together in a surprisingly effective little package that breathes a little bit more life into the genre. (I could have made a zombie joke there, but that would be dead stupid)

4) Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-water

I don’t have much to say about this one to be really honest. A really solid film that harkens back to old Westerns while revolving around a modern day series of heists. Great performances from the main cast, and fantastic direction. Not necessarily the easiest film to watch, but well worth seeking out.

3) When Marnie was There

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-21-37-56

No, this might not end up being Ghibli’s final film, but if it was it wouldn’t be a tragedy. In fact, When Marnie was There ends up a touching mini masterpiece that shies away from grand narratives and focuses on a small town and a relationship between two people, one of whom’s existence is called into question by the viewer and the protagonist herself. Really, however, the crux of the film rests on the protagonist. Throughout the film we question her sanity and reliability but she remains a fascinating lens to which to see the beautifully animated world through. As a Ghibli swan song, this may be a whimper rather than a bang, but in this case, that isn’t a negative.

2) 10 Cloverfield Lane

10cloverfield4-0

You really shouldn’t know anything about this film before going in, but suffice to say while my expectations going in were low, this film blew me away. Sharing a similar dynamic to last year’s Ex Machina (three people alone in a remote location), 10 Cloverfield Lane feels more like an indie experiment than a sequel to a blockbuster monster movie, but it’s all the better for it. Claustrophobic direction courtesy of Dan Trachtenberg, combined with the masterful performance of John Goodman are what makes this film click as a tense psychological thriller. The ending has proved controversial but I rather liked it, and if you don’t, just forget it happened and enjoy the rest of one of the best films of the year.

1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I said the ratings for this were arbitrary, but for this entry they aren’t. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is my film of the year, hands down. The art of directing comedy seems to be lost on most mainstream comedy films, but a few directors still have the knack. One of these directors is Taika Waititi, and this is on full display here, even more so than in his last film What We Do In The Shadows. While that film had a premise that perhaps didn’t quite deserve the run time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has both the heart and comedy to sustain a full film length. The humour is the gentle kind that Flight of the Conchords (another New Zealand comedy) mined brilliantly, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople has some lines that are up to par with that show’s comic genius (“You’re more like Sarah Connor. And in the first film, before she could do chin-ups.”). Julian Dennison, who plays Ricky, is a talented child actor of the kind any director would be lucky to find, and his chemistry with the gruff Sam Neill is pitch perfect. A real treat, and my unrivalled best film of the year.

Best Video Games of the Year

Another arbitrarily ranked list. Don’t expect any AAA titles on here, I didn’t play many of those this year. Instead, treat this as a list of quirky games you may have missed otherwise (but only if you own a 3DS)

N/A) The Last Guardian

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-22-00-10

I can’t give this a ranking yet, because I haven’t finished it and I plan to write a full and comprehensive review when I have. However, The Last Guardian has completely won me over. It’s a broken game in parts, with a messy camera and an unstable frame rate. However, I simply found myself not caring. The coup this game pulled off was to get me to care about Trico, the giant dog/bird monster who guides you through the game’s mysterious world, and it did this successfully through every means available; cutscene, gameplay, animations and scripted sequences. This one’s shaping up to be a true classic.

4) Pocket Card Jockey

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-22-06-45

Mobile games are a difficult thing to do well. They tend to be shallow little experiences, fun for a few minutes before becoming mind numbingly tedious. Pocket Card Jockey avoids this by taking the classic card game of solitaire, the ultimate boredom killer, and attaching it to fast fun horse racing with enough skill that winning feels like an achievement and enough luck that anyone can pick it up and play. Plus the game has a whole host of other little side options that make it feel well worth the price tag.

3) Rhythm Paradise Megamix

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-22-11-35

Strange surreal mini-games played to the beat off catchy J-pop tunes. This one contains all the mini games from past Rhythm Paradise games as well as a host of catchy new ones. It’s fun, it’s addictive, but its ultimately bogged down on an initial play-through by a needlessly inserted story. Luckily forcing your way through that opens up a treasure trove of mini treats. Enjoy!

2) Kirby: Planet Robobot

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-22-15-38

Occasionally, you have to celebrate a game for having not much more than really good level design. Kirby: Planet Robobot has that in abundance and I would have never even played it had it not been for a sale at a game shop I stumbled into. I’m not the biggest fan of the game’s steampunk aesthetic, but it solidifies it into a cohesive experience and links to the game’s new core mechanic. Unlike other gimmick Kirby power-ups, the Robobot armour isn’t used to solve obvious puzzles, but as a new way to traverse the level, sometimes even cutting off valuable collectables in exchange for a quicker path through. It has it’s own copy abilities, and it’s fun to control through the tightly designed corridor levels traditional to the Kirby series. Even the story is a step up from usual, a weird little muse on the ethics of colonialism. Well worth a play.

1) Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

pwaa_spirit_of_justice_screens_05_bmp_jpgcopy_thumb

You can read my spoilerific review here, but for those yet to play it: the best addition to a fantastic series since Trials and Tribulations back in 2004.

Best New TV shows of the Year

Comedy dominates this list because it’s what I’m a specialist in, but I’ve heard there were lots of good drama shows as well. I’m just not the guy for that. Also, this is just new stuff, so no second series here (sorry Crazy Ex Girlfriend, It’s Always Sunny, Brooklyn Nine Nine and many more).

4) The Good Place

the-good-place-points-1

Mike Schur is one of the most reliable names in comedy, so I had little doubt that The Good Place would be, well, good. What I didn’t expect was that this comedy would be so great even in its first season. Sure, there’s room for improvement but even as the series went on the quality of episodes kept increasing. Set in the afterlife, Kirsten Bell plays a woman who has been sent there mistakenly, while Ted Danson plays the afterlife’s oddball ‘architect’. Like Schur’s other comedies, the show rests on a balance between main and supporting cast both pulling their weight, and luckily they do. What’s different about The Good Place is that it feels less like a traditional sitcom – it’s much more structured and planned, each episode ending in a cliff hanger. For that reason, I’m excited for each new episode not just for the comedy, but also to see where the plot goes next.

3) Lady Dynamite

I already wrote about this one, and here’s what I said; With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery. Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

2) Search Party

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-23-09-32

This one was a real surprise to me; I had no real idea about it until it aired, but I binged the entire show in two nights. This is an almost perfect package of a show, a fascinating psychological study of Dory (played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat), a woman struggling to find purpose in her dull life until she gets swept up in a missing persons case involving an old acquaintance from University. Some see this show as a critique of so-called millennials, others shun that interpretation. In my opinion this show acts more as a reflection on contemporary characters; it’s too loving towards some of its key players and too engaged in their culture to be a simple critique, but too damning of their efforts to be a celebration of it. Whatever it is, I’m sure everyone can agree that this is smart, funny television that can exist even without social context as it’s own thing.

1) The People vs OJ Simpson

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-23-19-56

Like many viewers of The People vs OJ Simpson, I was not alive to witness the original trial. However, the cultural memory has lingered in the imagination long enough for lines like ‘if the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit’ to exist apart from the original tragedy. FX’s show The People vs OJ Simpson brings back the trial to TV screens and is every bit as gripping as what I’ve heard of the original. The cast playing the roles are all superb, even David Schwimmer surprises as Rob Kardashian (more like Ross Kardashian), but Sarah Paulson is the undeniable best performance of the show as Marcia Clark. The show looks at the case from multiple angles, each as intriguing as the last, and slowly guides you into understanding how the shock verdict came to be. This one stands at the top of many a ‘year’s best’ list and for good reason. I wish I could write for longer about this one but I feel I’ve already gone on long enough. This is one of the best TV shows not only of this year, but that I’ve ever seen, and it deserves to be remembered as a faithful and telling depiction of tragedy and the role of law in public life.

So that was my top 16 of 2016. Obviously I’ve not seen everything, and if you disagree with any of my suggestions, or want to recommend me something to review, please say in the comments. Additionally, if you want to hear my full thoughts on any of these, drop a comment and I’ll try and write a longer review. Thanks, and here’s to a better 2017!

Pokemon 20th Reviews: The State of the Franchise

large

No, I hadn’t forgotten about this series, although someone with little faith in me (like myself) might reasonably think that I might have forgotten about it until recently… Anyway, with Sun and Moon launching this month I think at least a cursory glance should be given to the trends of the Pokémon series in its most recent installments.

I think the obvious place to start is the Pokemon themselves; there are over 700 now, and after an attempt to ‘reboot’ in the main story of Black and White, the array of catchable critters had to be expanded for Black 2 and White 2. It’s a good thing they did because the Unova Pokemon have some of the worst designs in the series to date; weird ugly re-treads of familiar ideas with much of the colour stripped out of them. Unova itself is quite ugly to look at, aside from the occasional area of nice visual design that sticks in one’s mind (see Skyarrow Bridge), much of it is brown, grey and dark green; a colour palette that may replicate the country it’s aiming for but isn’t where I would want to go on an adventure. Both Black and White 2 and X and Y learned from these mistakes, but they took it in two different directions. Black 2 and White 2 revamped Unova and added in old Pokemon, which is a simpler solution, but one that works. The new areas are brighter and more distinct, such as Humilau City, and the addition of old Pokemon doesn’t add to the already bulky roster, but gives you more choice in the campaign, and means you can avoid the questionably designed Unova Pokemon. In X and Y, the roster of Pokemon is expanded, but minimally, meaning that the quality is high, but the quantity is low, a change I’m quite a fan of; especially seeing as Mega Evolutions add some new looks and functions to old Pokemon. Perhaps, though, X and Y lean too heavily on borrowed nostalgia, especially from the first generation; Professor Sycamore even gives you a Kanto starter when you meet him, meaning that you’re pushed into accepting an old Pokemon if you want to make full use of Mega Evolution. In the end, then, the new starters (save Greninja), feel a bit shafted, as do some of the newly introduced Pokemon. The region initially feels a marked improvement from Unova, but again this comes with caveats. All of the Pokemon games have felt boxed in, but the spite based aesthetic has somehow meant this felt more natural. With the 3D look of X and Y, the routes look awkward and cartoony in the way they just stop – and the fact that the game still runs on a grid based system only exacerbates the issue. Luckily, Sun and Moon already look to be improving this, although we’ll have to wait and see the full effect.

hiuncityroyal

In Black and White, one of the big innovations was the story, and in the past I’ve complained that the story in Pokemon is too weak to be interesting but present enough to disrupt the open-ended structure that was present in the first two generations. Black and White opts to improve on the first criticism, and while you’re shepherded around cities in what is probably one of the most linear regions yet both in route and map design (although shout out to the lovely Route Four),  the story is actually alright. Finally tackling the ‘isn’t Pokemon really cruel’ criticism was a bold move, and while they ducked out at the end by revealing Ghetsis didn’t care and was just your average baddie, it was nice to see them give it a shot and try something different. They also mess with the end game structure, creating an epic final showdown while also decreasing all impact Alder has as Champion. In Black 2 and White 2 the story suffers from being too complex and dull while still overbearing. I was never engaged by the plight of the two Plasmas, and everything seemed to take itself too seriously for its own good. Luckily, the ambitiously large post-game means that those wanting more freedom need only hold out until the end of the story, at which point the world opens up and reveals a multitude of post-game delights.

The story and structure of X and Y, meanwhile, are those game’s biggest weaknesses. Team Flare are pathetic villains; I’m still not 100% as to what their game plan was. Were they obsessed with beauty? Did they want to destroy the world, and if so, why? Who was Lysandre? I realise I’m exaggerating my ignorance for comic effect, but still; X and Y’s story was awful, and the addition of AZ only served to confuse it more. Kalos is twistier than Unova, all revolving around a central city and branches going off of that. However, those branches are as linear as they get –to an annoying degree. Gone are the long winding routes of Sinnoh, whose weather changed dynamically as you marched through them, replaced by bland looking single line Point A to Point B routes that add little to make you feel adventurous besides a few swoopinng camera angles. Maybe the worst offense is that when it’s over, it’s all over. In accordance with then series director Junichi Masuda’s new idea to make the series simpler for the ‘smartphone generation’, X and Y have almost no post game. For a series known for enduring gameplay, this is a disappointing change, one only partially rectified in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.

3

Finally, let’s talk about gameplay mechanics because this isn’t something I normally talk about. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the Pokemon battle system never changes because I have dabbled in competitive battling and know that each new Pokemon introduced is in itself a mechanic, and the smallest changes can have a big impact in that scene. However, the competitive scene is so intricate that it’s a job for people who know their stuff to properly talk about. Instead, I like to look at the bigger changes that even the casual players will notice. For that reason, I may have to not talk about Triple and Rotation battling, which are literally hidden in an alley by the game. If Pokemon itself doesn’t care, why should they expect me to? Pokemon would, however, love me to care about Mega Evolution, the big new change to the franchise that everyone including Game Freak seems to have very clearly realised was a mistake. Mega Evolution is a gimmicky little function that looks flashy but was clearly not thought out well. What could have made battles against Mega equipped trainers harder simply made the whole game easier while also breaking the meta-game. Not to mention most of them looked ugly as sin. More of an improvement were the Gen VI online features, made easier than ever, and much less confusing than the Dream World. The PSS was simple to use, and Wonder Trade was an inspired way to get people excited about trading Pidgeys. It’s a shame, perhaps, that the DexNav will stay exclusive to the Gen Three remakes, but not surprising given Game Freak’s track record. (Also for the record; customisation is cool. kthanksbye.)

While I tried to set this up as a comparison, it was really just mini reviews of the latest three Pokemon games, so I’m not sure if I’ve gained anything from it. I guess I’ve noticed that the Pokemon series hasn’t been going on a downward trend? Maybe the only trend I can see is the simplification of the region and route design, but that’s been happening since Gen Three. Overall, I think the only conclusion I’m happy reaching is; Pokemon is good, but some games are better than others. Insightful.