Persona 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Especially if you’re Ryuji.

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

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

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

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

[16] Maybe that was their plan all along.

 

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

A look at Dai Gyakuten Saiban

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This review contains major spoilers for Dai Gyakuten Saiban as well as other games in the Ace Attorney series

In my review of Spirit of Justice, I said that I considered Dai Gyakuten Saiban ‘unfinished’, and for that reason I could not place it in my Ace Attorney game rankings. Because of this, I felt that, at least until it received a sequel, I would not review Dai Gyakuten Saiban (henceforth DGS). However, as you can tell, two things happened to make me reconsider. Firstly, someone asked (and who am I to turn down a request from my very limited readership), and secondly a Youtube play-through of the game had been completely subbed by the fans (AA has the best fans), meaning the game is now more accessible to a non-Japanese speaking audience. Because of these things, I will now talk about the game for a bit, but bear in mind that this isn’t a review in the traditional sense. Dai Gyakuten Saiban may have released as a standalone product, but this game was built to be part of a longer story and thus criticising it for unfinished plot points and character arcs seems worthless, as come 2017 all those things will be resolved and any review of the game will have half of its criticism rendered meaningless. Because of that, this is more a ‘look at’ than a ‘review’ of DGS.

A playlist of extended songs from the DGS OST

Anyway, with that spiel out of the way, it’s time to look at the first case; in short; it’s alright. But short isn’t what we do here at Toatali Reviews, and short is not what DGS intends to do either. No, this case (The Adventure of the Great Departure), is long and almost annoyingly so. One of the longest first cases in the series, this trend towards longer introductions isn’t something I’m a huge fan of. Turnabout Trump worked as an extended introductory case because it added to the story and had a fantastic twist. Meanwhile, Turnabout Foreigner was a little too long for me, but it at least attempted to build up a setting; it had a purpose for being long. Meanwhile, The Adventure of the Great Departure does have some relation to the greater narrative, but as a case has nothing of much surprise or value that lasts its run-time. The important characters to the plot are Jezail Brett, John H Watson and Detective Hosonaga, and yet two funny but meaningless witnesses are added to complicate what is ultimately a simple case. Sometimes, making a case longer isn’t the right move if you’re not going to fill that time with engaging mystery or build up to some good twists. Perhaps the greatest strength of this case is Ryunosuke himself, who takes use of the full length of the case to get in some early character development. Character is a strong focus of DGS, in a way that the Ace Attorney series hasn’t quite seen before in the same way. Ryunosuke’s character development can actually be seen without a lick of Japanese; in Case One his eyes are wild, but by Case Five, his animations have settled down and his general demeanour is calmer, despite the stakes being higher. I think I’ll come back to talking more about our protagonist, but it’s worth saying nonetheless, especially seeing as his animations in Case One are such a highlight – the animations in general are something this game gets right in so many ways, but this is just an early example of how good the character and animation design is.

Another DGS staple that Case One exemplifies is the aesthetic. The initial trailer showed the game being set in Meiji Japan, and while I wish we’d stayed there a little longer, what we see of Japan here is lovely, and that same attention to making history look fantastic carries over to London when we eventually get to explore it in Case Four. Meiji Japan is a good setting for historical fiction; it’s a transitionary period from the Tokugawa period (remnants of which we can see in Payne/Auchi’s clothing) to the more modern Japan that existed up until WWII when the Japanese once again had to ‘reboot’ (to overly simplify Japanese history…). The Adventure of the Great Departure plays with its historical setting in some clever ways, from the failure of the Japanese to recognise Curare, to the relationship of Japan to England. As a Londoner myself, seeing the Japanese position on the casual racism of the British to the Japanese during this period was quite interesting, and Brett’s dismissal of Ryunosuke’s efforts is simultaneously amusing, threatening and depressing (making her a potentially good villain until they blow it by ‘forgetting’ to give her a motive). Of course, Takumi has swotted up on his history; the case takes place soon after the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation, which may sound boring, but changed the nature of Japanese criminal law by abolishing extraterritoriality for British citizens living in Japan (meaning that people like Brett could be forced to appear in court and tried under Japanese laws).

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tfw your mentor dies and you have to make difficult decisions in court

Ryunosuke’s mentor Asougi marks a good transitionary point between Cases One and Two, but also marks out Takumi’s efforts in DGS to rectify the mistakes of Ace Attorney games past. In fact, here’s another reason why the length of Case One might not be such as sticking point; Mia in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney didn’t get much chance to be fleshed out before being killed off, and so it’s really only in Trials and Tribulations when we as an audience start to care about her, by which point, it’s almost too late. Takumi attempts to retry this with Asougi, and to a certain extent he succeeds. Asougi is more defined as a character than Mia, but his somewhat aloof nature means that he’s quite hard to warm to. When someone is that great we have to get to know their flaws and humanity before we can really care for them, and, for me at least, Asougi misses that mark. Still, his death in Case Two (The Adventure of the Unbreakable Speckled Band) is surprising, though not as surprising as the structure of that case as one without a trial.

The Adventure of the Unbreakable Speckled Band is an attempt to shake up the structural conventions of an Ace Attorney game; it focuses entirely on the investigation segments in order to build up and develop a new mechanic, and while it succeeds on that point, it fails on a few others. The biggest mistake that Case Two makes is in its mystery, which borrows the title and premise from a Sherlock Holmes story, then after leading you to the original reveal, pulls the rug out from under you and gives it a whole new ending. This is a good start – I’m not a huge fan of the original Speckled Band, and the idea of turning an original Holmes story on its head in order to introduce a Holmes that is also a reinvention of Conan Doyle’s iconic creation is smart. However, the new ending is awful, to be blunt about it. I’m not a fan of accidental deaths in murder mysteries in general, but to add on top of that the mass sleeping drug twist that any murder mystery fan could see coming a mile away, and the murderer being a cat and you get a rather disappointing reveal. I did like the creation of the locked room trick, however, and the pathetic way that Asougi dies ties into a theme that can be seen throughout DGS, that I’ll get onto later.

Now is, however, a great time to talk about Sherlock Holmes, who makes his appearance in this Case, bringing with him a whole new investigation mechanic called ‘Joint Reasoning’. Sherlock himself is a divisive character and it’s really a matter of personal preference as to whether his humour and style clicks with you. For me, Sherlock worked – I loved watching his logic spiral out of control, and Sherlock Holmes is a character that has been through so many iterations it was nice seeing something that felt completely fresh. Joint Reasoning was built for this new Sherlock, and as such it’s also been somewhat divisive. The stylistic direction is something to behold, borrowing Ghost Trick’s spotlights and adding spinney and dramatic camera angles that match perfectly with Sherlock’s bravado nature. However, I understand the criticism that the whole thing takes a bit long; while nowhere near as bad as Apollo Justice’s Perceive, which forced you to crawl through the same speech over and over again to droning music, in Joint Reasoning there is a bit of repeat to the whole process when you attempt to correct the flawed logic. Still, the music development does a bit to alleviate this, and I was never personally bored. One problem I did have with the mechanic is that it never really develops. There’s too much reliance on eye direction puzzles that wear out their welcome a bit towards the end, which I think is something that needs to be examined for DGS2.

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Oh look, it’s actually Satan

After disembarking the ship Ryunosuke and Susato land in London for what is not only the best case in the game, but one of the best in the whole Ace Attorney series. The Adventure of the Runaway Room is a masterpiece in the way that it takes the conceit of another of the best cases in the series (2-4, your client is guilty), then reworks it and redoes it to make it somehow even better (this also ties into what I was saying earlier about Takumi reworking the events of previous games (I’m really clever)). This case defines DGS and plays up all of its strengths, so much so that I’m not even quite sure where to start talking about it. I guess I’ll start with Megundal, who Takumi really needed to get right for not only this case, but also Case Five, to have their full impact. Luckily, he succeeded; like a Victorian billionaire version of my old art teacher Mr. Crow (yes I realise that’s a bit too personal just bear with me), Cosney Megundal is calm yet threatening; he’s at points friendly, but there’s a simmering anger underneath it all that you can just glimpse in his animations and finally breaks out towards the end of the case. Megundal is the sort of villain you love to hate, and DGS of course forces you to defend him. Unlike 2-4, however, Megundal isn’t holding you hostage. Instead, Ryunosuke holds himself hostage; he could easily go back to Japan, but he holds himself to the memory of Asougi and is therefore trapped by his own promises. In the end the decision is taken out of your hands when Megundal and Lestrade (here reimagined as a thief rather than a detective) tamper with the evidence, but then you have to make the decision again; do you admit the evidence has been forged. In a moment that robs you of all joy and marks the darkest moment in an Ace Attorney game, Megundal becomes the perfect villain by making you choose between ‘justice’ and ‘friendship’, the two key tenants of Ace Attorney protagonists, in a way much less forced than that of 2-4. And then, when you choose justice, it’s all robbed from you by the unpredictable new mechanic of the jury. For that moment alone The Adventure of the Runaway Room would cement itself as a masterpiece of the series, but luckily other elements come together to make this case even better than it already was.

Barok Van Zieks (or Banjieks or whatever) is a perfect prosecutor for this case, and while he doesn’t ever get the development he sorely needs, for the purposes of Case Three, he does just fine. For one, he’s not a genius child prodigy; he’s just a normal prosecutor with an aura of death around him. Being more adult just makes someone more threatening to face and his threats here aren’t of death and torture like Queen Ga’ran in Spirit of Justice, in fact, they’re threats appealing to Ryunosuke’s sense of justice. Both parties here know that Megundal is guilty, but Van Zieks has been chasing him for years, only now returning to court to take him down. Van Zieks embodies the sense of justice in this case where the memory of Asougi embodies the conflicting side. If Van Zieks doesn’t get the development he needs in DGS1, that’s because he serves his purpose as the man committed to taking down Megundal. Hopefully though we’ll learn more about him in DGS2, because he has potential to be more (also, that leg slam. Nice.)

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Spoiler; Barok never finishes his wine because he’s a lightweight

There are three more things that I want to praise Case Three for; music; jury and evidence, so let’s quickly start with the music. All of these sort of apply to all of DGS, none more so than the music. DGS’ soundtrack is amazing, and Case Three makes liberal use of the track ‘Trial in Disarray’, which is one of the highlights of the OST. Seriously, if you haven’t yet, just give the whole thing a listen. Anyway, onto the jury, which seems to be another element that clicks with some people and not so much with others. While I have my own problems with the jury, such as the reuse of characters that makes London feel like a small town and the overuse of the system near the beginning of cases that makes the whole thing feel less dramatic, in Case Three, they are used in a way that makes sense. Takumi seems to have wanted to use a jury since Apollo Justice, but only now are we seeing the full system come to fruition, and his plan starts with a case that showcases the power of the jury by taking the decision out of your hands. You’re against Megundal, but the evidence isn’t there, and the jury cannot convict him. While I feel that the jury will have some prominence in the finale of DGS2, Case Three seems to be the apex of the jury in this game, and as such I see why complaints about them abound. Finally, I’d just like to touch on the return of necessary evidence examination. For once you have to actually look at the evidence you’re given. Again, this is one of Takumi’s improvements; Rise from the Ashes had a bit of this, but really DGS is where it shines.

From the best case to the worst case, DGS falls fast and hard in The Adventure of the Clouded Heart/Kokoro. Yes, the twist is awful and the case drags a lot, but I don’t hate this one as much as some others I know do. For me, it’s the characters that pull this one through – the Garrideb’s struggle is just funny and touching enough to carry me through this case, and Souseki is a great defendant. If anything, this case aims to build up a feeling of London, but I can’t say it succeeds – it might be too subtle. Turnabout Foreigner shoves its message in your face, but it does get the point across, whereas Clouded Kokoro tiptoes around the subject, only hinting at its true intentions. That or it’s just a bad filler case that I’m reading too much into. Anyway, I don’t have much to say about this one.

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The final case is where everything came together for me – it never reaches the height of Runaway Room, but it’s a fantastic final case, and it will tie nicely in my thesis that I’ll present in a minute. I think the introduction drags a bit, mainly because we have to spend a lot of it with Iris and Gina, two characters I don’t like. Gina falls into the tsundere trap, and while she’s not as bad as Rayfa, I expect more from Takumi. Iris, on the other hand, is pointless and annoying. That’s about all I have to say about Iris – my patience wears pretty thin in indulging the notion that she is any more than a silly mascot character. Luckily, we soon get some stakes and an intriguing mystery. Once we’re in court, everything falls into place. Gregson, a detective so boring I forgot to write about him in my Clouded Kokoro section, becomes a secret spy in a more believable twist than the Phantom in Dual Destinies. An annoyance from Case One (the rejection of science) rears its head again, as do other plot points. But best of all, Megundal shows his final hand; Rupert Crogray is not the final villain you’d expect in an Ace Attorney game because he’s not the final villain; Megundal is. Seeing the continuing influence of Megundal is great to watch, but it also raises an interesting question; one of satisfaction. Something I’ve heard a lot is ‘Crogray was a bad villain because beating him wasn’t satisfying – and you’re robbed of the satisfaction of beating Megundal.’ Yes, that’s all true. But I think that the mistake is treating that as a negative. Before I get to my point, let’s just talk a bit more about Ryunosuke and Susato. I’ve ignored Susato because she’s boring but I do like how she’s quite a change from other cheery assistants past with her calmer nature and I see major development for her in the future. Ryunosuke is… he’s a good protagonist and more defined than Apollo and Phoenix but I can’t help feel that his journey is, at least for now, a bit basic. He starts nervous, and then after a brief spell of depression and challenge becomes more confident. Fine, but a bit cliched. Hopefully, he’ll develop more in DGS2, but I’m not holding my breath.

Okay so here’s my point; Dai Gyakuten Saiban is simultaneously the first and second act of a traditional three-act structure. DGS is both the introduction and the lowest point of our characters – and this makes sense when you consider two things; one is that DGS was written as one long story and split up afterwards (much like The Lord of the Rings) and two; the resolution of every case robs you of any satisfaction that is synonymous with the Ace Attorney series. The first case feels unfinished because Brett has no motive; the second case is unsatisfactory because Asougi died by accident; the third case forces you into letting a guilty man off the hook and then has someone else kill him; the fourth case has no murderer, just a broken home leading to an accidental stabbing, and the final case is just a sad resolution to the third and leaves all the pressing questions unanswered. And sure, that’s not satisfying, but does it matter? DGS accomplishes what it sets out to do, and it does it really well. If that means that it’s not satisfying as a standalone game and you don’t enjoy it for that reason then fine, but it sure worked for me. It is different and it’s new, but I can’t wait to see how the story resolves itself.

Review: Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice

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For Toatali’s Ace Attorney review is about to begin…

This (massive) review contains major spoilers for the entire Ace Attorney series and both Ace Attorney Investigations games (and minor DGS spoilers). 

Before playing Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice (henceforth Spirit of Justice), I had some assumptions about what this game was going to be like, based solely on the trailers and what I knew from past experiences as an Ace Attorney fan. I even had a rough structure in my head; first talked about what worked, then move on to the larger subject of what didn’t work and why, incorporating short and long term causes of the game’s failure. When I came to play the game, however, at around half way through the second case (The Magical Turnabout), I realised that not only did I like the game much more than I was expecting to; I thought it was perhaps the best game the Yamazaki team has made.

For those less well-versed in the behind the scenes world of Ace Attorney, after the creation of Apollo Justice Ace Attorney, series creator Shū Takumi went off to create Ghost Trick, and a separate team for formed to handle the creation of the Ace Attorney Investigations spin-offs; a team headed by Takeshi Yamazaki. Takumi would later return to the series to write Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney and Dai Gyakuten Saiban but Yamazaki’s team would take over core development of the mainline Ace Attorney series starting with Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies. Yamazaki’s writing style is certainly more pronounced than Takumi’s; I think anyone playing Yamazaki’s games would notice two distinct features. Firstly, Yamazaki tries to create a grand theme for his games in a way that Takumi does not, and this means that they often feature grand finales with spectacular, often political, ‘final bosses’. Ace Attorney Investigations and Spirit of Justice both end with you taking down a politician (Spirit of Justice actually has two (if you can call Paul Atishon a politician)), and Ace Attorney Investigations: Prosecutor’s Path and Dual Destinies both get final bosses whose takedown carries some political impact. Dai Gyakuten Saiban seems to be trying similar things, but this isn’t a Takumi hallmark as it is for Yamazaki. The other noticeable feature of Yamazaki’s writing is that it really drags. Points are repeated ad infinitum, and some cases become very hard to play because of too much teasing and not enough telling. This is one of the reasons that I’m less fond of Prosecutor’s Path than some other people; the third case and the final case are both so much of a slog to get through that it feels like a struggle to reach the (admittedly brilliant) final boss.

Link to a playlist of music for your listening pleasure

Yamazaki’s trait of overly long writing certainly comes through in the first case of Spirit of Justice; The Foreign Turnabout, which sees Phoenix take his first case in the kingdom of Khura’in, the setting for this game. And my god, is this case long for an introduction to Spirit of Justice; it takes forever before the culprit of the case Pees’lubn Andistan’dhin (the puns in this game are kind of next level so bad they’re good, including one that gets oddly self-referential) takes the stand. The problem here is not that the first case is long, but that the mystery that supports it is weak. Apollo Justice also had a long first case, but it had a killer twist (geddit?) and a great premise in taking up the defence of Phoenix Wright. The Foreign Turnabout’s mystery is alright, but could have taken up much less time, and this feels even longer when a camera pan is triggered every five minutes, in case you forgot that the crowd isn’t on Phoenix’s side. The crowd had been a fun part of Ace Attorney games prior, and can be used to ramp up the tension, but overuse leads quickly to fatigue, and this game sure loves its crowd work. The first part of the game introduces us to the Divination Séance, this game’s new mechanic (because every Ace Attorney game is now required to have some new feature in it). Luckily, the Séance is fantastic, easily surpassing Dual Destinies’ feeble Mood Matrix (more on that later). The Séance feels fresh for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s difficult. Yes, you actually get penalised for slipping up, but even if you didn’t working out the solution is often hard but always fair. Secondly, this isn’t a tool of one of the protagonists. In fact, when the game starts, the Séance is regarded as a tool for the prosecution to provide flawless convictions. Thus, reinterpreting the Divination Séance as a piece of unbiased evidence for the two sides to fight over feels triumphant, and an actual realisation in gameplay terms of the main theme of ‘revolution’. The Séance gets further expanded on brilliantly in the third case, so I’ll talk more about it there, but suffice to say, I’m a fan.

The second half of the case focuses on taking down the real culprit Pees’lubn, who gets a great visual and auditory testimony. This seems like a good a time as any to talk about the presentation, which gets a huge upgrade in Spirit of Justice. Although Dai Gyakuten Saiban still holds the top spot for Ace Attorney visuals with its hugely stylish Joint Reasoning segments, Spirit of Justice looks great; the character design is classic Ace Attorney, and the animations translate the fluid sprite artwork of Apollo Justice into 3D much better than Dual Destinies did. The music is similarly improved from that game, and I’ve included a playlist of my favourite tracks from the game to listen to as you slog through this review. One track, entitled ‘A Cornered Heart’ fills a role in Ace Attorney that no other track has filled, but works really nicely in a game of this scale and ambition.

 

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The closest we’ll get to an English DGS

 

Now is also as good a time as any to talk about Phoenix in this game. Despite being the titular character, Phoenix Wright is somewhat shafted in this game, which is actually not a bad thing. Yamazaki has stated that he wanted Phoenix to be challenged again by putting him in a fish out of water scenario, and for the most part this works. Sure, Phoenix’s inner monologue is too similar to Apollo’s, and his persona in Turnabout Revolution is so different from how he plays it’s almost absurd. However, the challenges of Khura’in are just enough to hold suspension of disbelief that such a skilled lawyer could be so nervous. Having Phoenix experience Khura’in before Apollo is also useful in that we can once again see Phoenix take up the mentor role just before Apollo leaves for good. Phoenix know Khura’in by the final case, so there’s a good excuse for Phoenix to act as the senior of Apollo, and makes Apollo’s takedown of Ga’ran without relying much on Phoenix even more impressive. By the way, not how this paragraph on Phoenix has shifted to talking about Apollo? Yeah, that’s because Phoenix has little to do in this game, especially in terms of character development. Yes, this is a problem that has been in play since he returned to court in Dual Destinies. Yes, I will try and address what they could do with his character going forward when I talk about the ending.

For now though, it’s finally on to the second case, The Magical Turnabout (slow progress… (A lot like playing the game, I might add)). This case is really what sold me on the game; it’s sort of like finally playing Apollo Justice 2, but with a better prosecutor, better villains and a really solid little mystery. Mr Reus is one of the best Ace Attorney villains to date, and even before his eventual transformation from Roger Retinez to full on scorned Gramarye (transformation of witnesses is something that happens a little too much in this game), he is still such an infuriating presence that the final confrontation feels extremely satisfying, even more so than the takedown of Ga’ran. Some have complained about Yamazaki retconning the Gramarye backstory to include Reus, but it didn’t really bother me; in fact, not having heard of Mr. Reus before this case actually makes a funny sort of sense and adds to his motivation of being pissed off that he’s ‘the forgotten Gramarye’. As for the whole prank storyline, this feels more far-fetched in retrospect, but the fact I never questioned it while playing is a point in its favour. The return of the Gramarye storyline also allows Trucy to get some much needed character development, and although her mantra rings a bit familiar it’s way better than her getting completely shafted as she did in Dual Destinies, especially as this game has such a focus on Apollo. (Let me just also add before we move onto talking more specifically about characters that the return of free-investigation is another thing that Spirit of Justice improves from Dual Destinies. I can’t believe how much I’d missed it).

 

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Oh yeah, the new judge – great guy; real mensch

 

Speaking of returning characters, Ema Skye makes her return as a fully-fledged forensic investigator. While this means that the Ema we see in Spirit of Justice is a happier Ema than the one in Apollo Justice, that’s about it for her development. New Ema brings with her new forensic technology, including amazingly tedious fingerprinting sections that give you a huge 3D object and finicky controls and ask you to find annoyingly placed fingerprints. One segment involving a suitcase in Case Five took me upwards of 20 minutes as the fingerprints weren’t placed where you might expect them to be, despite characters telling you to ‘look where you might find fingerprints on a suitcase’. Ema is also useful for this review in terms of providing a neat Segway into talking about new prosecutor Nahyuta Sahdmadhi, who she strikes up a reluctant friendship with. Nahyuta is a much needed improvement in terms of a prosecutor from Simon Blackquill. Whereas Blackquill had a needlessly complex background and a pretty predictable character arc, his biggest flaw was just how many different prosecutor concepts were shoved into him. A prisoner prosecutor would be cool, as would a Japan-obsessed prosecutor and a manipulative prosecutor (although we sort of already have one of those). Blackquill tried to be all of these at once, and he ended up a bit ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Nahyuta is much simpler, at least concept wise. He’s a monk. He’s rude. That’s all you need to know, and it makes facing him easier to grasp. His movement from slave of the regime to secret rebel isn’t exactly inspired (Darth Vader, much?), but the writers play up how much under the thumb of Ga’ran he is that when he finally reveals the tattoo it’s a great moment. I’ll talk more about Nahyuta’s relationship with Apollo when I get to him, but it’s just different enough from Phoenix and Edgeworth that I didn’t mind it, and I almost like Nahyuta as a prosecutor more than Edgeworth, even though as a character he’s much shallower.

While The Magical Turnabout sold me on Spirit of Justice, The Rite of Turnabout was what made me really respect this game, and highlights what a leap has been made in terms of writing from Dual Destinies. This case features the return of Maya Fey, somewhat of a tragic inevitability for the series since the return of Phoenix to ‘protagonist’ role. Yes, I realise I might get some flak for this, but Maya’s story ended in the trilogy, and while in real life people’s stories don’t just end (and yes, someone raised that as an argument when I gave my views on the return of Maya), they do in fiction. Luckily, count me pleasantly surprised on how Maya was handled here. No, it’s not perfect, and she feels a bit tacked on given her strangely lacking amount of screen time, but it’s certainly better than I was expecting. Maya actually seems to have matured in between games, giving sound advice to Rayfa and talking with Phoenix about taking things more seriously, even if her trilogy character shines through sometimes. It’s simple stuff, but it’s good. Even Phoenix starts to feel older with his bouts of back pain. Given that Maya is either in prison or channelling Tahrust (in one of the creepiest moments of body horror I’ve seen since that episode of Monster Factory with Bart), most of Phoenix’s investigation time is spent with Rayfa Padma Khura’in, because even Back Pain Phoenix™ can’t keep teenage girls from swarming him at all times. That would be bad in and of itself, but it might be excusable if Rayfa was fun or interesting to be around like Kay was in Ace Attorney Investigations. Instead, the writers try and deviate from the standard fun sidekick, but unlike Susato in Dai Gyakuten Saiban, who is refreshing in her seriousness, Rayfa is just annoying. The best word I can use to describe her is tsundere, a trope from anime that has always infuriated me and I’m sad to see crop up in a series that can otherwise pride itself on the characterisation of some of its main cast. Nothing about Rayfa, from her introduction to her redemption made me care even a little, because her storyline was so predictable I could see each story-beat coming a mile away. I complained earlier that Nahyuta had some familiar elements to his arc, but at least him being held captive by the customs of the country was a neat twist. The closest Rayfa’s storyline came to surprising me was the revelation that Nayna was Amara, but that had little to do with Rayfa herself.

 

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Never fear – ‘Nngh’ is still in this one

 

Why do I like The Rite of Turnabout so much then? Well, because unlike Dual Destinies’ third case, it succeeds in getting across the problems with the legal system that the main cast is supposed to be railing against. While I do have a soft spot for the comedic sides of Turnabout Academy, nothing about the case itself screams ‘Dark Age of the Law’, instead it’s the characters who have to constantly remind us that it’s the ‘Dark Age of the Law’, in case the funny tone of the case made us forget for a minute. In The Rite of Turnabout, everything points the player towards the game’s central theme of overthrowing a corrupt legal system by actually seeing that corrupt legal system drive a sweet couple to murder and suicide. Not only that, but it also uses Farewell, My Turnabout’s trick of a central mechanic (in this case, the Divination Séance), being used against you by the true criminal. The first half of the case is a bit of a slog, but the second half wowed me. Neither Phoenix nor Tahrust have to constantly remind you that the legal system is wrong, because the player is seeing it first-hand. In the end, when Beh’leeb fully commits to revolution, it makes total sense.

The Rite of Turnabout also begins to hint at the final case, be it Maya challenging a man, the introduction of Datz Are’bal, or the revelation that Apollo and Nahyuta are ‘siblings’. Rather than satiate our appetite for more information, the game decides to take a left turn, most likely because it had forgotten the existence of Athena, and we get to experience the bizarre Turnabout Storyteller. In a way, this is fine; I like Athena and it’s more Ace Attorney, after all (bear in mind that without this case, the final case would most likely be split into two so as to make sure that the game had five cases). Still, I like this case, mainly because it treats Athena and Blackquill way better than Dual Destinies ever did. Having removed the ‘prisoner’ aspect of his character, Simon becomes simpler and better written. Plus, we actually get to see his psychological manipulation for the first time when he plays Uendo’s multiple personalities off of each other in order to get them to testify (see how easy it is to show and not tell – again, this is simple stuff, but it works in Spirit of Justice’s favour). I really like Athena as a playable attorney (unlike Apollo and Phoenix, she feels more unique to play as), and the Mood Matrix gets an improvement with a new feature that adds…penalties! (Hooray for less hand-holding). There isn’t that much else to say about this case, the actual mystery being pretty decent but nothing to write home about (good twists with the murder weapon and the Time Soba trick), but I will quickly mention the much welcome return of the Thought Route, even if it looks a little weirder this time around.

So then, finally we move onto Turnabout Revolution, and my complex motives emotions regarding this case. This case actually separates into two parts, one a civil trial (ish) which features the inevitable face-off between mentor and mentee, and the other a grand murder trial in Khura’in that sees the future of the revolution put on trial in the form of Dhurke Sahdmadhi. But before we can get to that, let’s have a quick look at the civil part of the case. Let’s be honest, this is pretty cool. Not only is it nice to see a civil case in Ace Attorney, Paul Atishon is one of my favourite witnesses/murderers to date. He’s hilarious, and his great theme and breakdown are just the cherry on top. As I mentioned before, facing Phoenix creates an odd disconnect from playing as him – why isn’t he this on top of things when I’m controlling him? – And the whole ‘Phoenix forced to stand in court because Maya is being held hostage’ is completely ripped off from 2-4, but I did get a bit of a chill when Phoenix outsmarted Apollo, and then when Apollo finally turns it around to save Phoenix.

 

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These photos have little rhyme or reason, but I’m tired and I just wrote 4,000 words so forgive me

 

You’re going to have to forgive me, but writing about the final part of the last case is a little tricky, because I have yet to formalize my opinions on it like I have for the other cases. The finale is pure Yamazaki; it goes on forever and has more twists than a slinky. Initially, I was disappointed that I guessed the Nayna is Amara twist, but that turned out to be just one twist on top of many. Certainly the most successful of the twists was that *gasp* Dhurke was dead the whole time (duh duh duh)! Yes Dhurke, leader of the revolutionaries and an oddly lovable character considering he just shows up at the beginning of case five in a poorly written intro to the character. Yet, because of Turnabout Revolution’s length and Dhurke being (as BoltStorm put it) ‘Such a dad’, the revelation that he was just being channelled by Maya, having died at Inga’s hands earlier is a real shocker that actually made me a little bit weepy. The less surprising twist is that Ga’ran, or little Miss Spider-Hair, was actually the big bad and both Inga and Jove Justice’s murderer. Ga’ran is a pretty weak villain, so cartoonishly evil it’s hard to overlook. Simon Keyes undergoes a similarly evil transformation at the end of Prosecutor’s Path, but the revelation of him being the mastermind is so shocking that it’s easier to forgive. I think, then, were Ga’ran to have stayed composed while being the prosecutor, it would have made more of an impact than her looking like Ursula the Sea Witch. Her breakdown is also slightly underwhelming, but it comes after the well-executed twist (yes, another one) that she is not the rightful queen.

You’ll notice that we’ve gotten to the end of the game without talking about its star Apollo Justice. That’s because he gets the silliest treatment of any protagonist in any Ace Attorney game to date. Spirit of Justice’s very premise is silly; Khura’in is cool but makes so little sense in the wider context of Ace Attorney and suddenly springs out of nowhere to provide a setting for the game. The idea of taking down a monarchy in a country made of spirit mediums seems like ripe potential for a spin-off, not a main series game. And yet, Yamazaki and his team have not only tied Maya and Phoenix to this country, but Apollo as well. The constant drip feed of Apollo’s many siblings and family ties becomes absurd about half way through case five, and is then topped off by a post-credits reminder that Phoenix has yet to tell Apollo and Trucy about their connection (making a comment by Dhurke slightly uncomfortable). Still, Apollo manages to brush this stream of siblings off to assert himself as an Ace Attorney in his own right. In his own game, Phoenix did most of the heavy lifting for him, while in Dual Destinies he was pushed to the side-lines in favour of a ‘courtroom revolutionary’. Here, he finally gets to prove himself, saving Phoenix Wright and becoming a literal courtroom revolutionary, as opposed to whatever Athena’s exclusive Mood Matrix did to the courtroom. Were Apollo not such a mistreated character by the Yamazaki team, I’d feel that his send-off here feels earned, but because this is the closest he’ll get to a full game where he’s the driving force, the ending becomes bittersweet. Apollo finally gets the character development he always deserved, but we know he’ll never get to bask in it like Phoenix, because he just doesn’t bring in the dough for Capcom.

 

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How silly this lawyer game is

 

This analysis has been a long exercise in me spouting my thoughts about the game, but has it actually gotten us anywhere? Did I like the game? In short, yes. But I think the impact of the game has been stifled by the old foe Dual Destinies. Before you complain, I do like Dual Destinies, but its impact on Spirit of Justice has done little but lower the overall quality of this game. A better Dual Destinies would have gotten rid of the need for the Athena filler case, and given Apollo more time in the spotlight to have his ending here feel deserved. Still, I can’t give Spirit of Justice any more praise than saying it is the best post trilogy game we’ve had (note that I consider Dai Gyakuten Saiban unfinished at this point). It gives Apollo a nice conclusion to his arc, sets up and demolishes a fictional country that it (luckily) never takes too seriously, handles Maya’s return well, improves on almost every aspect of Dual Destinies that it tackles, and is probably the funniest of all the Ace Attorney games. High praise, indeed then. Yes, of course it’s flawed, including in some major ways, but damn, it’s still good.

There is one question I would quickly like to address before this ends; where does Spirit of Justice leave the mainline series? Apollo could conceivably get his own game helping Khura’in, but I very much doubt that. As for Phoenix, he’ll probably remain on the box, but I’d like to see him become a pure mentor character, emphasising his traits as ‘Turnabout Terror’ rather than ‘Turnabout Unprepared’. A soft reboot also wouldn’t go amiss, but maybe the best thing would be to let the series lie dormant a while. We have Dai Gyakuten Saiban to keep us going, but I think the important thing is for Yamazaki (or Fuse or whoever it may be) to make sure the next step for the series is simple, and effective (yay for buzzwords)!

(Phew…)