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Friday, 11 August 2017

Persona 5 - Review










Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus/Deep Silver 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3

Persona 5 had a lot to live up to. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Persona 3 & 4 are two of the greatest J-RPGs ever made. Persona 3 made the series what it is today; rebooting the older games and melding classic RPG mechanics with a layer of social simulation. Its successor, meanwhile, has some of the strongest character writing...well...ever.

One of the strengths of the previous two games was how unique they both were on a thematic level. Persona 3’s exploration of existentialism, and a melancholy look at death contrasted with Persona 4’s more light-hearted, but still poignant, examination of hope versus nihilism.

Persona 5 continues that tradition, bowling over any assumptions that this was going to be a safe and predictable sequel. As with the last two games, it has a primary colour, and it’s bright red. Fitting, given the subject matter. This is a game that’s about freedom, challenging authority and facing injustice.

It wastes no time setting up these themes either. Within the first hour you’re introduced to a host of characters who, quite frankly, don’t seem to want you around. The head teacher of your new school sees you as a problem student, and the guy you’re sent to live with stuffs you in the attic and tells you not to cause trouble.

This is a gritty, grimy contrast to the otherwise innocuous charm of the previous games’ school environments. Persona 5’s opening arc, essentially a tutorial, is about a gym teacher who abuses his students, driving one of them to commit suicide.

It’s a blistering gut-punch to start your game on, mining some genuinely disturbing emotional mileage from themes and story beats that other games wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Persona 5 though, is all the better for it.

This story thread soon results in your character and his friends forming the Phantom Thieves; anarchic warriors committed to rooting out injustice. As with Persona 3’s Tartarus and the Midnight Channel from Persona 4, the Phantom Thieves have to visit another world, this time through an app on their mobile phones. In this case, it’s to root out a particular villain’s subconscious, stealing their prized treasure, and forcing them to undergo a change of heart.


If the story and themes are a deviation from the previous instalments, the combat and dungeon-crawling remains relatively familiar territory. Given that you’re playing as thieves, there’s a general emphasis on stealth, ambushing enemies as you slowly explore your target’s “palace”; the home of their subconscious desires.

There’s an indication that Atlus have wanted to make these sections more evocative and tighter than in other Shin Megami Tensei games. The dungeons are more linear than before, comprised of fixed rooms and locations, rather than the procedural generation of the last two games. Likewise, the focus on stealth, ambushing foes in order to initiate combat, is given greater significance than before, bordering on a stealth mini-game. Get spotted by too many foes and you risk being booted out of your targets palace early, forcing you to return on another day in order to complete your mission.

The focus of these dungeon-crawling sequences still remains the same, however. Bonus turns are doled out for successfully striking weaknesses or inflicting critical hits. It makes for tactical forward-planning when constructing your team; whilst each party member has their own particular Persona, your main character has access to a menagerie of alter-egos that you accumulate as you progress. Since your opponents benefit from the bonus turn system in the same way that you do, there’s a Pokemon-like mentality to building up your collection of Personas, attempting to diversify their weaknesses and ensure you have a broad range of strengths.

Talking to enemies makes a return from other MegaTen games as well, adding a little more nuance to acquiring new Personas for your main character. There’s a smart risk versus reward element here, as a conversation that goes south will leave the enemy with the initiative, turning what was initially an advantage (you have to down all the enemies with super effective hits in order to initiate a dialogue), into a potentially dangerous situation.

This is still a game that rewards wiping out enemies as quickly as possible. Fights might be turn based but there’s a breezy quality to encounters, with taking down enemies with that important all-out attack being almost always the primary goal.

Series veterans will also be right at home with the game’s fusion system. As in other MegaTen games, fusing monsters isn’t just a quirky pass time but an outright requirement in order to stay ahead of the curve. Personas level up far too slowly to justify keeping them around forever, and so frequently making trips to the Velvet Room in order to splice various creatures together is something of a necessity.

It’s arguably even more important here than in other instalments because of the game’s social simulation mechanics. Part of what makes these Persona games what they are is that a significant portion of your playtime is devoted to building up your relationships with the people around you. Persona 5 is no different.

Atlus have made some tweaks to the social side of things by threading them back into the core theme of working as the Phantom Thieves, with each social link you acquire also providing a number of different bonuses as you level it up. Make friends with a socialist politician running for office and you’ll unlock abilities that make it easier to recruit new Personas, build up stronger connections with your party members (as with Persona 4 each of them comes with a unique social link) and they’ll gain additional abilities for use in combat.


It’s a nice touch, and one that adds even greater strategy when it comes to working on the game’s relationships. Prioritising some social links in order to gain access to specific bonuses is a valid tactic throughout the game, and all the while you’re fighting against the fact that you’re on borrowed time. There’s never enough time to do everything you want in Persona 5 and so you have to make decisions, who to spend time with, what to do after school. It’s not long until your social schedule is overflowing with things to do.

Between completing palaces and building social links, there’s also Mementos to tackle. If the game’s main dungeons have become more linear and story driven, then Mementos is the more typical, randomized floors seen in the other game. Like Tartarus, Mementos is divided up into a series of floors and zones as you progress deeper.

I’ve avoided talking about the game’s story largely due to spoilers. Atlus, likewise, seem especially nervous about spoilers, with my PS4 repeatedly telling me that every other scene is blocked from recordings and screenshots.

Thematically, Persona 5 is easily on par with its predecessors, exploring freedom, youth and, most importantly, anger at institutions of power in a way that feels earnest, genuine and remarkably poignant given the times we’re living in. It’s easily the most overtly “political” game that Atlus have written in recent years, with an anarchic sensibility. It touches on anti-capitalist themes here and there, with one villain being a business owner who sees his staff as nothing more than wage slaves, and makes for one of the game’s most interesting dungeon designs as you explore the subconscious version of his factory reimagined as a giant science-fiction fantasy staffed by robots.

Atlus manages to do all this without the themes themselves feeling pat or hokey. The game tackles these elements with enough subtlety that the player isn’t being beaten over the head, whilst still ensuring that those themes are resonant enough that it never feels flaky or vague.


It’s in the plot, then, the story that strings all these fascinating ideas together, that Persona 5 risks stumbling. The characters this time around are less engaging and memorable than those in Persona 3 & 4. It was always going to be a tough standard to live up to, but both the main party members, and the social links, never leave quite the same impression. There’s no relationship here that catches you off-guard, like Akinari in Persona 3 or Rise in Persona 4. It’s also hard not to look at some of the new teammates and just see older ones pasted over with a few different character traits; is Ryuuji really all that different from Yosuke and Kanji, isn’t Makoto just Mitsuru done all over again?

Persona 5 is so focused on its central story that the sub-plots and downtime, the moments that are arguably just as important to these games, is made much weaker. It’s made worse by the fact that the later parts of the game suffer from some poor pacing. Again, it’s difficult to articulate this without revealing massive spoilers but, as the game progresses, there’s little build-up to its climax, scenes can feel repetitive or altogether redundant (it wasn’t necessary for characters to repeat the same phone text dialogue every three or four days) as the game seems to shuffle towards its ending rather than build up to it in a suitably dramatic fashion.

None of this takes away from the fact that Persona 5 is  a fantastic game. It’s made by a team that’s still at their peak when it comes to crafting J-RPGs. It might stutter a little when compared to Atlus’ other efforts, but, barring some miracle, it will easily go down not just as one of the best RPGs of the year, but as one of the best games of 2017.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Weird Genius of Digimon World - [Part 3]













The Town

If raising Digimon is one half of Digimon World, then it's rebuilding the town at the centre of File Island that comprises the other half of the game. Rather than simply make File Town a generic hub from which to start the game off, Digimon World uses this part of the game world for a fascinating part of its level design.

Digimon World is almost completely non-linear in terms of how its game space can be explored. A quick look at the game’s map reveals that it loops around in an ingenious fashion, with the (typically) more difficult areas being at the back of the island, furthest from where the player starts.

Yet, aside from this general tendency, there’s very little order in which the Digimon you encounter have to be recruited. Since recruiting Digimon is the goal of Digimon World rather than, say, completing specific areas or defeating bosses, there’s a much more free-form structure into how each part of the game can be completed.

It’s a tightly interconnected game world that rewards players for mastering its locations and understanding their relation to one another. It’s difficult to find an accurate modern comparison for Digimon World’s level design. It’s (sort of) like a Metroidvania structure, albeit without any abilities that cordon off specific zones. Another similar comparison would be classic survival horror level design. As with Resident Evil’s mansion, there’s numerous paths in Digimon World that interconnect various zones, meaning players that master its level design can benefit from more efficient travelling from zone to zone. This is a major benefit to the player when you consider the fact that their Digimon partner has a limited lifespan and requires feeding and taking to the toilet every few in-game hours.


Of course, recruiting Digimon feeds back into this free-form navigation. Each Digimon that joins the city typically contributes something to the place, be it a new shop, resource, or just an aesthetic improvement. Convincing Centarumon to join opens up the medical clinic, whilst Birdramon sets up a transport hub that can warp you to specific locations you’ve already visited.

It’s an incredibly satisfying gameplay element, as you eagerly wait to see what your latest Digimon friend has contributed to the town. Yet, it also reinforces the game’s focus on navigation and strategy. Being able to tackle any of the game’s areas/Digimon essentially in any order means that there’s a degree of strategy, especially early on, in terms of recruiting the most important and valuable Digimon in order to give you a head start.

I suspect this is why the game is so enjoyable to replay; precisely because each time you play through there’s the option to remix the way you experience things. Grabbing different Digimon earlier/later might make some parts harder/easier further down the road.

Likewise, this links up neatly with the slightly chaotic evolution system. Just as each playthrough is different from a non-linear exploration perspective; you can go wherever you want, it also changes based on the Digimon that you end up having. Finally, this brings together the game’s move system, which, given the different Digimon your partner can evolve into, might prioritise going to different places earlier in order to acquire specific moves. Freezeland is one of the game’s most difficult areas, yet it becomes much more enticing to get there sooner should you have evolved your partner into a water-based Digimon for example.

Chaos 

All of this sums up Digimon World’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s a game that plays out differently each time you play it. Exploring one side of the map first and getting a certain evolution might make for a different experience during the second half of the game compared to another player. Despite you starting off in the exact same spot with potentially the same Digimon, you both end up in radically different places.


Yet, these two elements, its randomness and its vague design, are also what can make it so frustrating to play. It’s hard to recommend this game to people without also kindly pointing them to a guide to have at hand. Many of Digimon World’s elements could certainly do with a rework, especially its battle system, which, whilst not terrible once you’ve tackled its initial problems, still remains far from ideal. It’s also hilariously unbalanced when it comes to the game’s movepool, with some abilities being powerful to the point of broken, and others being nearly useless.

Despite these niggles, and despite me having to look at the game without the benefit of nostalgia goggles, Digimon World is a smartly designed game. Its gameplay systems; the exploration, training/battling and town-building, slot together like an intricate puzzle; three disparate gameplay concepts that gel together and enhance one another.

Bandai could have quite easily got by phoning it in, riding the coattails of Pokémon without much effort. Yet somehow, they resisted that temptation and created not only something that stands apart from Pokémon, but a game concept that still remains incredibly original to this day.

Sequels

It’s not surprising then, that Bandai followed up the game with several sequels. Ironically, none of them kept the gameplay ideas of the original game. Digimon World 2 and 3 were released for the PlayStation, whilst Digimon World 4 was released across all three sixth generation consoles.

Digimon World 2 opted for being a dungeon crawler, whilst Digimon World 3 took the conventional approach of meshing the series with contemporary J-RPG elements, much like a PS1-era Final Fantasy albeit on a smaller budget. Digimon World 4 in 2005 went the route of an action-RPG, even going as far as to kit out all the Digimon with weapons

Needless to say, all of these different experiments with the franchise never paid off, and it was the original 1999 game that garnered the cult following. Finally, in 2012, Digimon World Re:Digitize saw a release exclusively in Japan on the PSP, followed by the recent worldwide release of Digimon World Next Order on the PS4 earlier this year.

Digimon World is the kind of game that needed a sequel. Not simply because it’s good and there needs to be more of it, but because it’s a game that isn’t perfect, there’s room for it to grow, develop and iron out the myriad of problems it has. It has room to evolve, in other words. I’ve yet to play either Re-Digitize or Next Order, but hopefully, that’s precisely what the game’s do; building on the core foundations of the original.

Digimon World is an example of a game that works in spite of its problems, and also because of its remarkable originality. If you’ve never played it, it’s well worth tracking down a copy in order to check it out, if only to see how many unique and fascinating ideas it has whirling around in one game.

If you do take a look at it though, you might want to keep a guide handy. You'll need it...