Deep reads #5.2: That was cheap

Here’s a fun Hardcore History-style disclaimer: This is part two in a multi-part feature on the Megami Tensei game series. If you haven’t read part one, here’s a link — I recommend reading that first before proceeding to get the proper context if you need it. But if you just want to dive in here, that’s totally up to you.

You can also read this disclaimer in Dan Carlin’s voice if you want. But if I had his voice, I’d probably be podcasting instead of writing a blog. Anyway, on with the show.

“Cheap” is a term that gets thrown around a lot when players die in games in ways they feel to be unfair. I don’t know if it’s possible to pin down exactly what a cheap death is, or where specifically a death goes from “okay, that was my fault” to “fuck this cheating piece of shit game” along with a possible thrown/broken controller.

Maybe the best way to define cheap in this case is to use that famous definition of pornography given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”1 The best example I can give of just such an “I know it when I see it” instance is this.

I like the detail on his sarcophagus, though. Kazuma Kaneko pays a lot of attention to detail in his designs.

That’s a compilation made by YouTube user Jim Reaper of parts of the boss battle against Mot, an Egyptian god of death, in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. This fight occurs at a point fairly late in the game when the part-human part-demon protagonist Demifiend is running through the Vortex World, a small sort of bubble universe containing the ruins of Tokyo. After fighting through the somehow perfectly preserved Diet Building, Demifiend is forced to face this sarcophogus-encased asshole to proceed.

Mot normally shouldn’t be a big problem at this point in the game if you’ve built up a team of demon allies with diverse strengths and abilities. However, he has a trump card that he’ll decide to pull if you’re unlucky: Beast Eye. This is the weaker of two special abilities that gives the user extra half-turns denoted by the flashing icon in the upper right.

Essentially, Beast Eye and the even stronger Dragon Eye let you get more turns for free, something like wishing for more wishes from a genie. Only bosses can use this move; for obvious reasons neither Demifiend nor any of his allies gets to use either of them (including boss demons that become recruitable or fuseable after they’re defeated.)2 This would be cheap enough, but Mot alone among all his boss colleagues can use Beast Eye multiple times in one turn. It doesn’t happen in every fight, but when Mot remembers he has that ability, he can effectively deny the player his turn, using a combination of Beast Eye, buffs, and powerful Almighty magic attacks that can’t be nullified to kill Demifiend and company even if they’re fully healed and buffed.

Granted it does lead to the game’s beautiful game over sequence that I never get tired of seeing, but still, annoying.

So maybe it’s not easy to pin down exactly what constitutes “cheap” in a boss battle, but that sure as hell is cheap. I’m not sure if it was even put in intentionally or was an accident; there’s no particular reason Mot alone among all the bosses should have this frustrating ability, which is why I think it might not have been intentional.

But this is not the only big “FUCK YOU” moment in a Megami Tensei game. I had a much more personally frustrating experience with the Beelzebub fight near the end of my Neutral route run of Shin Megami Tensei IV. This feared chief lieutenant to Lucifer is very strong, as he should be given his position as an endgame boss, and the battle is naturally difficult to clear. However, when the fight starts there’s a good chance, possibly 50/50, that on top of all that Beelzebub will get the first turn, which he will use to absolutely fucking destroy your party. If he hasn’t completely wiped you out and sent you off to Charon before you get a turn, your party will almost certainly be too injured and weak to effectively answer Beelzebub’s first strike, and you’ll probably end up dying on your second or third turn.

After beating slapped around by this giant fly for a dozen rounds, I just started automatically quitting and reloading when he got the first shot assuming I wasn’t totally dead at that point. Because to me, this fight jumped over “challenging” and landed in that cheap territory, at least when it gave Beelzebub the first turn. I wouldn’t call it a controller-throwing moment, since SMT IV was on the 3DS and like hell I was about to break that precious thing by flinging it into a wall. But the fight was frustrating and felt fundamentally unfair. A coin toss mechanic works fine if the two parties are relatively balanced in strength, but that wasn’t the case here.

More Kaneko, depicting the Lord of the Flies in his ultimate form. I said it seven years ago in my review of the game and I’ll say it again now: Beelzebub is an asshole.

There are a few other instances I can think of in the series that might count as cheap, like the Sleeping Table fight in Persona 3. However, almost none of the other difficulties I’ve faced in an SMT, Persona, or other game in the MegaTen series has really pissed me off to such an extent as this fight against Beelzebub. I have heard some of these games called difficult to the point of being entirely cheap, though, and that’s what I want to address here. I can’t blame anyone for feeling that way about any of the mainline games in particular — they do like to beat up on the player, Strange Journey probably being the worst in that regard.3

But I don’t mind that. That’s partly because these games usually give you all the tools you need to meet their challenges. When I talked about cheap SMT bosses above, the name “Matador” might have sprung to mind — this powerful fiend dressed up like a Spanish bullfighter shows up early in Nocturne and will usually wipe out new players because of how steep a jump in difficulty his fight represents. However, there’s a big difference between the way Matador fights and the ways Mot and Beelzebub fight in the examples I gave above. In the latter cases, the player can easily get battered to death no matter how prepared they are through the enemy’s use of unique advantages that are extremely difficult to survive, much less to counter.

Matador, however, can easily be countered as long as the player has the right party and skill setup. He seems to be the game’s way of telling the player “Hey, we’re not going to let you breeze through this just by staying properly leveled. You have to use your head.” You could argue that a boss battle designed to beat the player the first time around is a bit cheap in itself, but as long as you’re hitting save points promptly, you’ll lose very little progress, and it’s an easy matter to fall back and come up with a new strategy. And almost every other difficult battle in the series I’ve played so far fits this model: it presents an obstacle that seems insurmountable until you come up with the winning strategy (though having some luck still helps.)

And don’t forget the buffs. No joke, Megami Tensei really is the one JRPG series I’ve played in which buffs and debuffs are not only useful but essential to winning.

That’s not the only aspect of Megami Tensei that sometimes feels unfair, however. There’s another mechanic present in a lot of these games that might make you tear your hair out: demon negotiation.

Negotiating with fellow humans is hard enough. But when you’re a human (or a former human-turned-demi-human as in Nocturne) dealing with devils, angels, spirits, and even deities, it’s time to leave behind logic entirely. Players new to the series who picked up Persona 5 got a taste of that pure insanity in its own negotiation system, but the mechanic in that game is fair and easygoing compared to its counterparts in the mainline games.

In the other games, the demons you’re talking to aren’t typically knocked down or pleading for their lives, so maybe that’s the reason for their relative docility in P5. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, I did let her live.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a summary: in many Megami Tensei games (ex. the SMT series, the Devil Summoner series, and of course Persona 5) you have the option of fighting against your enemies or talking to them.4 Once you initiate the conversation, several things can happen depending upon the game you’re playing. Most often, the demon you choose to talk to will acknowledge that you’re asking them to join your party and will start to haggle with you, asking you to give them specific items or amounts of money or to let them drain some of your HP or mana. After a few requests that you can either take or leave, the demon may then ask you a multiple-choice question. This question is often a philosophical one, something like “Don’t you think the strong should protect the weak?” or “Is beauty only skin-deep?”, the sort of question depending upon the demon you’re talking to. And if the demon likes your answer, it will probably join your party.

But note all those qualifiers I wrote above: often, may, probably. None of these are sure outcomes. Again, it depends on which game you’re playing, but the demon you’re talking to may be able to reject your advances outright, or take the items and money you’ve given it and run, or decide it doesn’t like how you answered its question and leave or even get angry and attack you, or decline to join your party but give you an item instead (sometimes the very same item you gave it!) Sometimes the question it asks has a bizarre “correct” answer, or one that doesn’t seem to line up with the alignment of the demon asking it. Sometimes the “question” isn’t even a question but an exclamation or a command that you have to do your best to interpret. And depending upon the type of demon, you might not even be able to enter negotiations, either because it’s a mindless beast that can’t communicate with you or because it’s an evil god or demigod who’s too arrogant to even consider giving you the time of day.

And if you talk to a demon under certain circumstances, like a full moon phase in a mainline game, good luck getting anything meaningful out of it, because the full moon apparently gets demons high. Though that’s also a great time to trigger events that won’t normally happen at any other time, like having one of those haughty but extremely powerful Tyrant demons join your party (though I wonder if they end up regretting their decision when they come down after the full moon phase ends. Too bad, because it’s too late once you’ve got them!)

Okay Demifiend, I agreed to join your party but does that mean we have to take these weird group photos? Also please stop twisting my nose. (Source: still more Kaneko official art. This post is really doubling as a Kaneko art appreciation piece, isn’t it.)

At this point, you might be wondering whether it’s worth negotiating with these jerks at all if there’s always a good chance that it will go wrong. To be sure, it’s extremely annoying to have a demon run off with your items without you being able to stop them or to constantly get turned down by one specific demon you’re trying to pick up because you keep failing its stupid tests. But negotiation is still a must. It’s necessary to getting through these games’ challenges efficiently, since it provides useful fodder for fusion to get new demons with more than their typically meager default set of skills.

More importantly, negotiation in these games is fun, largely because of how insane it can get. Negotiation is a gamble that provides the player with a lot of possible outcomes, some of which may only turn up after dozens or hundreds of rounds of talks with various enemies. This makes the mechanic a lot more interesting to use for me, even if the results can be occasionally frustrating — especially when you’re trying to recruit one particular demon you need for a fusion (or just because they look cool or are a hot lady demon or guy demon depending upon your preference; those are legitimate reasons too.) If the gambling aspect of negotiation weren’t there, I could imagine it becoming a bit repetitive and boring, but I’ve never had that feeling about it in one of these games.

Moreover, the crazy, unpredictable nature of negotiation in SMT and the other spinoffs that feature it fits in nicely with the chaotic environments that most of these games take place in. Imagine trying to talk to a powerful mythical beast or spirit, much less trying to convince them to join your team and follow your orders. You’d be lucky if they merely ignored you and didn’t decide to eat or possess you or something similar. Since your protagonist in these games typically has either the natural ability or the pure strength to bring these beings over to his side, it’s reasonable that he at least has to deal with this human-demon cultural divide, and in a few cases with a sort of language gap.

Uh, shit. Okay, maybe “human” is the right answer because it’s the odd one out, but maybe this demon will agree and eat me if I say that. What to do.

To me, this is why these crazy, often unpredictable negotiations fit in so well with the general feel of the Megami Tensei games, and especially with the mainline apocalyptic SMT ones. When you’re thrown into the deep end like that, it makes sense that you’d have to deal with this kind of madness. The games usually do give you a bit of help with a free demon, typically a Pixie who takes some pity on your squishy human self, joins your party for free, and explains the basics of negotiation to you. But beyond that, generally speaking you’re on your own, which is just the way it should be.

And I think that’s true for the entire Megami Tensei experience as a whole. These games vary in tone a lot, from pretty hopeful and even light and fluffy with a few of the spinoff of spinoff games (really the Persona ones) to grim and “why even go on living” with stuff like Strange Journey. Those are both aspects of the series that I plan to cover in later parts of this run of posts, but I think the mercilessness of the combat and dungeon-crawling and the chaotic nature of the negotiation throughout a lot of the series suits it well in both cases. I couldn’t imagine MegaTen in general without it, anyway. It just wouldn’t be the same. Even the fights that feel cheap still fit that kind of setting in my opinion, though I could still do without Beelzebub starting first and destroying my party while I watch helplessly.

I could go on with even more such banging my head against the wall but also fun instances from these games, but I hope I’ve made my point well enough by now. Next time, I plan to move from gameplay mechanics over to story elements, diving right into the characters, story, and lore, so prepare yourself for that. Once again, I hope you’ll join me on that journey. 𒀭

 

1 Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), in case you thought I wouldn’t bother to cite the case properly. You can find the quote on page 197 if you don’t believe me. There are also very obvious questions raised here about how much experience Justice Stewart had seeing pornography considering his comment, but these questions lie outside the scope of this post series.

2 And possibly some very strong normal enemies as well, but I don’t remember if that’s the case. In general if I write something incorrect in these posts, which is very very likely, please feel free to leave a comment correcting me.

3 Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ultra-frustrating final bosses like Mem Aleph in Strange Journey, or optional extra bosses like Demifiend in Digital Devil Saga. Some people might see those as kind of cheap, especially Demifiend who can summon a wide variety of demon allies just like he can when the player’s controlling him in Nocturne. However, these are the kinds of bosses you fight either specifically for a challenge or at a point in the game where you’re expected to throw everything you have left at it, so if there is any cheapness there, it feels more appropriate to me.

4 If “talking to enemies instead of fighting” makes you think of Undertale, that’s no coincidence: from what I understand, Megami Tensei is where its creator got the idea from, though he took his own conversation mechanic in a very different direction. There’s no pacifist run possible in any MegaTen game that I’ve ever played, anyway.

Deep reads #5.1: Why I like Megami Tensei

This was bound to happen at some point. I’ve written a lot about the long-running Megami Tensei JRPG series on this site, certainly more than I have about any other game series — maybe even more than every other series put together. I don’t care to go back and measure that out, but it seems likely.

But why? What’s so special to me about Megami Tensei that I can’t shut up about it? I’ve written reviews of a few games in the series and about various aspects of it here and there, including these two commentary posts from last year. With this new set of posts, I want to dive into that question and examine what makes this series unique and what I think it may have to offer new fans just getting into Persona through the Persona 4 Golden PC port, for example, or wondering about news of the Nocturne HD remaster and the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.

As with the Disgaea series I wrote way back in January through April, this one will run as long as it needs to, and like that one, it’s partly meant to win over converts. But don’t worry! It’s fun in the world of MegaTen. At the very least, it might put you into the right mindset to deal with the coming demon apocalypse that will begin in 2033 when a portal opens over your city and Loki and Set fly out.

Speaking of Loki and Set, first things first:

A very brief history of the series and an explanation of just what the hell Megami Tensei is exactly

Megami Tensei (女神転生, literally “Goddess Reincarnation” though it’s never gotten an officially Anglicized title like that as far as I know) started out as a trilogy of novels by author Aya Nishitani. These have to do with a bullied high school student named Akemi Nakajima who summons the Norse trickster god Loki through a computer program he wrote to beat those bullies up, but the kid goes a bit power-mad, and Loki ends up using him to escape the computer and enter the real world somehow. Then Nakajima becomes an actual hero, trying to stop Loki with the help of his classmate Yumiko Shirasagi, who also happens to be the reincarnation of the Japanese creation goddess Izanami (which is where the title Megami Tensei comes from.)1

Following the success of the first novel in the series, two games were made titled Megami Tensei and released in 1987. The first to come out was a Gauntlet-looking top-down action game made by developer Telenet that has absolutely no connection with what came afterward. The second was a turn-based JRPG developed by Atlus for the Famicom and was the starting point for the now three decade-long series we’re talking about here. Though this game was based on Nishitani’s first novel, as soon as the sequel Megami Tensei II the series moved away from the source material and started doing its own thing.

But where does that Shin come from? And how do Persona, Devil Summoner, and all the other spinoffs relate to it?

And what makes this cover kind of misleading?

In 1992, Shin Megami Tensei was released for the Super Famicom. Like a lot of other game series that jumped over from the Famicom, this Shin was added as a prefix to set it part from older titles — the character 真 has a few meanings but here it’s used as something like “true”, like “hey, this is the real thing.” Like its predecessors, Shin Megami Tensei was a turn-based JRPG about fighting a demon invasion while recruiting demons into your party through a unique negotiation system. It also spawned a sequel, establishing what we now call the “mainline” SMT series, running through those first two Super Famicom games, SMT III: NocturneSMT IVSMT IV Apocalypse, and the upcoming SMT V.1

However, in the mid-90s Atlus started producing a load of new games in the Megami Tensei universe, using a lot of the same mythological figures and creatures that were featured as demons in the older Megami Tensei/Shin Megami Tensei games. Series like Devil Summoner, Megami Ibunroku Persona (the first Persona game, yes) and later on Digital Devil Saga and the strategy RPG Devil Survivor. These games either had sequels or started entirely new spinoff series, the most successful of which was Persona, which has gotten far more press than even the original series that spawned it.

It’s also important to untangle some of the title-related weirdness that’s gone on when these games have received NA/EU releases. Fans of Final Fantasy will be very familiar with these problems, getting a “Final Fantasy III” that’s actually Final Fantasy VI and so on. The issues with some of the 90s/00s titles in Megami Tensei are weird in a different way. In their attempts to sell this series to the West, Atlus messed around with its titles a bit, releasing Persona 3 and 4Devil Survivor 1 and 2, and the Digital Devil Saga and Raidou Kuzunoha games with the Shin Megami Tensei prefix when none of them were actually SMT games. Megami Tensei, yes, but throw out the Shin because it doesn’t belong there.

It doesn’t have a , but Persona games aren’t a bad place to learn a few other kanji. Thanks for the help, Ryuji! From Persona 5 (2016).

Thankfully, they seem to have quit doing this, but it’s still a bit of a mess for westerners who want to look up information on the Japanese versions of some of the 90s and 00s games. Basically, if the original title doesn’t contain that 真, it’s not SMT. That naturally has nothing to do with its quality or anything; it’s just a problem with classification. But hell, classification is important. How are we supposed to find anything without it?

I’ll stop boring you with classification talk now, though, and answer the question I posed in the beginning: what do I find so great about this series? Let’s get on to it:

1) Use of mythological, historical, and religious figures from around the world

Many game series that rely on myth and legend for their characters and worldbuilding use beings from one culture or part of the world. Or they go the route of Elder Scrolls and D&D-based worlds and use Tolkien’s old lore. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I’ve really enjoyed games that stick to those standards.

But one of the reasons I find Megami Tensei so interesting is that it doesn’t limit itself to any one set of traditions. Certain games will have specific focuses, but as a whole the series branches out into the tradition of just about every culture it can find. Many of the demons in the series (and note: “demon” is a neutral term here referring to any supernatural or mythological being regardless of their alignment) are taken from pretty well-known and common sources, including the active Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions and the ancient Greco-Roman, Norse, and Egyptian ones, and sometimes with a special emphasis on Japanese myth. But there are also beings taken from traditions like the Buryat (best bird Moh Shuvuu), Ainu (Koropokkur), and Hawaiian (Pele). The addition of a few other “fallen” gods who were toppled by now-dominant religions like Christianity and Islam make for some interesting character relationships that play out in some of these games.

Alilat, an ancient Arabian goddess whose idol was smashed in Mecca, is back to take it out on your party. Well, not exactly, but I like to think she’s carrying around that grudge. From Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (2009).

The demon designs add a lot to this variety. Most of them were done by artist and series co-creator Kazuma Kaneko, who has an extremely distinctive style. Some of Kaneko’s designs are straightforward, while others get extremely creative, taking some liberties with the demons in question. But even when that’s the case, the designs still usually make sense. The two alternate designs for the common series Angel are good examples of both his approaches: the one that’s used in SMT I and II looks like the typical depiction of an angel from western tradition, while the design used in Nocturne and the Persona games is… well, not typical at all. Yet even that provocative “bondage angel” design has some connection to what an angel is supposed to be in our set of traditions here. It’s not just provocative for its own sake.2

And of course there’s the classic case of Mara, the villainous god of desire/temptation in Buddhist tradition, but also known among MegaTen fans as “dick chariot” for reasons that will be obvious if you look it up. I’ll do you a favor by not posting it here, but you’ll have seen it in some form or another if you’ve played a MegaTen game, and maybe even if you haven’t. That damn dick chariot just won’t stop showing up — he’s a fan favorite, after all.

2) The relationship between the supernatural and human

This connects to the first reason above. It’s also a theme that I plan to write about in a more in-depth way later on. But here, I can at least say that the Megami Tensei series does a lot more with its various gods, angels, demons, spirits, monsters, and mythical heroes than dumping them into a game and making the player fight them. Most of the games involve the human characters having to deal with the supernatural leaking over into the world of humans. This was the basis of the very first Megami Tensei novel and its game adaptations, and though the series has branched out greatly since then, that basic premise is still there.

The relationship between humans and gods and/or godlike supernatural beings isn’t a new theme for the JRPG genre. It’s been present in the genre pretty much since the beginning. The original Megami Tensei has its roots in that beginning, but other major JRPG series like Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and Ys also established it as a common theme. Megami Tensei carries that theme even further by having its human and demon characters not only fight but also bond and work together towards common goals. The demon negotiation system is part of that, one of its most unique elements and still one of my favorite mechanics in any game series. Cooperation between humans and demons also plays heavily into the plots of these games, however: particular demons join up with or try to influence human leaders to take actions depending upon their alignments, and the most powerful of them pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Or, you know, they become your demon waifu like Pixie here. From Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003).

In the SMT games and some of their spinoffs, this places the player character in an awkward position where fellow human party members will fall into one of the ideologies that make up these alignments. By the end, the player is usually forced into one of these alignments depending upon his dialogue and action choices at fixed points throughout the game. And it’s very much to the credit of the series that it never presents one of these paths as “the right one.” Megami Tensei doesn’t set values of “good” or “evil” on your decisions, going instead with a law-neutral-chaos scale and leaving the players to make up their own minds about the morality of their choices.3

By doing this, the series avoids falling into the trap of trying to force a morality-based karma system that may come off as overly simplistic. Such a system might work for some games, but it wouldn’t really work for MegaTen. While some gods, spirits, and demons certainly identify with being on the good or evil side of things, many of the others have little or no regard for these paltry human concepts of morality. Even the MegaTen version of big bad Lucifer, the Devil himself, doesn’t seem to consider himself evil but rather more a force of chaos, pushing a world of might-makes-right-based total freedom. Whether his goal is good or evil is up to you to decide.

3) A variety of gameplay styles

Megami Tensei is best known for being a turn-based JRPG series, and to be fair a lot of its games use that combat style, including the mainline SMT and Persona titles. If turn-based combat isn’t your thing, though, the series still has plenty to offer, like grid-based tactics battle systems (Devil Survivor) and real-time action (Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha.) So even if you’re completely allergic to the old JRPG “stand and wait for the enemy to hit you, then hit him back” standard, you don’t have to write MegaTen off completely.

And even the turn-based games themselves vary greatly both in gameplay mechanics and in atmosphere and narrative style. There have been a lot of complaints in the last decade about how “stale” the JRPG genre has gotten, partly because of its wearing down of old plot and character tropes and partly because of its use of the old turn-based combat system that hasn’t changed much since the 80s. That’s a take I generally don’t agree with anyway, but I do think MegaTen has been able to avoid being subject to these complaints both by defining its own unique narrative styles and by keeping combat fresh from game to game. Combat in SMT and the other series spinoffs has a different rhythm, relying on the player’s use of buffs and debuffs, exploitation of enemy weaknesses, and effective defense of their own weaknesses.

The Press Turn system in Nocturne is a good example of this: by hitting enemies’ weaknesses, the player only spends half a turn instead of a full one that can be used for a strategic advantage, but hitting enemies with attacks that they void, repel, or absorb costs the player extra turns or even cancels the player’s attack round altogether. The same rules apply to the enemy’s attacks, requiring the player to use both a strategic offense and defense to win. This creates a situation where the battle will tip for or against the player depending upon their party composition and how smartly they’re playing. As a result, brute-forcing your way through an SMT game is simply not an option.

Trumpeter toots as he pleases, no matter how overleveled you are.

And then, of course, there’s Persona. This MegaTen spinoff series has blown up everywhere, comparatively moreso in the West where Megami Tensei didn’t have much of a presence up until Persona 3 got some notice from players here. The Persona games use a modified form of the turn-based SMT battle system, but it’s their inclusion of the social sim aspect that really sets them apart from the rest. It wasn’t a new concept when Persona 3 came out — the Sakura Wars series had been doing it for a while by then — but it was a new concept to me when I picked the game up on its NA release in 2007, and despite a few pacing issues it really worked for me. But I’ll get more into that in a later post.

It’s also worth mentioning that none of these different spinoffs feel like cash-ins based on fads, as though Atlus was throwing out something slapped together for fans to buy up because it had MegaTen branding.4 All these various game styles are at the very least playable even if you’re not a particular fan of them (I’m awful at the Raidou games’ real-time action combat to the point that it’s just frustrating for me to play, but that’s more my problem than the games’.)

4) The music

Yeah, of course the music in this series needs its own section. Every Megami Tensei game I’ve played or even just seen played by someone else has had amazing music, without exception. This is largely thanks to longtime series composer Shoji Meguro (responsible for much of the music in the first three SMT titles, the Persona, Digital Devil Saga, and Devil Summoner games among others.) These soundtracks have very different feels that suit the mood set by each game: Nocturne and DDS combine hard rock with softer ambient-sounding tracks, the Raidou Kuzunoha games use some older jazz styles that suit their 1930s setting, and the modern Persona games have more modern-sounding soundtracks with emphases on rap/hip-hop (Persona 3), pop/rock (4), and jazz/funk (5). And though they don’t get as much attention, Persona 1 and the 2 duology have excellent music as well — I’ve had the battle music in Persona 5 Royal set to A Lone Prayer for a while and I’m not getting tired of it yet. The common point here is that these soundtracks are all excellent, full of memorable, moving, and powerful themes.

While Meguro is the most prominent music guy involved in Megami Tensei, credit also has to be given to Ryota Kozuka, composer for SMT4 and a great one in his own right, and Kenichi Tsuchiya, who provided the massively impressive church organ music for Nocturne and a number of other pieces throughout the 2000s. And of course, the performers get serious credit as well: rapper Lotus Juice played a big part in defining the sound of Persona 3, just as the singer Lyn did for Persona 5 — if Mass Destruction and Last Surprise were stuck in your head when you played these games, they were partly responsible for that.

I actually do like “Mass Destruction” but god damn did it get old after hearing it 500+ times in battle. From Persona 3 (2006).

I could make a list of my favorite Megami Tensei tracks, like say Normal Battle ~Town~, Hunting – Betrayal, Memories of You, Tokyo… but that would probably be an entire post (or series of posts?) in itself.

And as for the other reasons why I like this series — I’ll be getting into those in far greater depth starting with my next entry. I don’t plan to focus each of these entries on individual games or sub-series, but rather on concepts and approaches the series as a whole takes. This will still require going into depth about specific games’ plots, characters, gameplay mechanics, and themes, but I will be trying to avoid specific end-game spoilers. I don’t have any of the other posts even close to done yet, but this is a promise I’ll try to keep.

Hell, I don’t even really know how long this set of posts will be yet. Let’s just say that it will be as long as it needs to be. No need to worry about the details yet. I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here anyway — may as well just charge ahead and hope for the best. 𒀭

 

1 But is SMT: Strange Journey a mainline SMT game? On one hand, it’s thematically in line with the other mainline games; on the other, it doesn’t take place in Tokyo and doesn’t have a numbered title. I’d say it falls into the same category as SMT if… — It’s SMT, but not a mainline game strictly speaking.

Again, though, I don’t know how much it really matters. You could just as easily argue the opposite based on the similarities SJ shares with the numbered games and where Atlus implies or some fans believe it lives in the series’ bizarre, complicated five-dimensional multiverse timeline. I’m not getting into any of that, though. I don’t have enough pushpins and yarn for it.

2 At least I don’t think it is. Maybe Kaneko was having a joke on us. He seems like he has that kind of sense of humor. Just look at Mara.

Also, I’m not forgetting Shigenori Soejima here — he’s one of my favorite artists, but I’ll get into his work when I dive into Persona specifically later on.

3 Nocturne’s Reasons are an exception, but aside from Shijima, Yosuga, and Musubi being a bit different from the usual Law/Chaos/Neutral paths, they operate the same way in the sense that the game doesn’t place a moral value upon them. I still think Hikawa is an asshole, though.

4 With the arguable exception of the Persona 3 and 5 dancing games. Technically they were fine, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some enjoyment out of them, but the way they were released did come off like a cash grab, which is something I won’t even say about any of the other many Persona spinoffs. Still, they didn’t feel slapped together or anything.

Also with the possible exception of the gacha game SMT Liberation Dx2, but I can’t say because I haven’t played it. I’m naturally suspicious of the “free-to-play” gacha game model, but I’ve also heard that the game has had a lot of work and care put into it, so I don’t want to judge it unfairly. (Besides, even though I say I’m suspicious of gacha games, I’ve played both Puzzle & Dragons and Azur Lane, so who the fuck am I to talk.)

Deep reads #4: Playing God (The Sim series)

A few years ago, I started a game of SimCity 2000 on a virtual machine that I documented here on the site. The result was a fifteen-part series that ended in a stupid joke non-ending because the VM crashed, or my file got corrupted or something, and I lost all my progress. Should I have backed the file up? Probably, yeah. Do I understand a thing about virtual machines beyond the bare basics of how to run one? Not really, no.

Behold my glorious creation and despair that the city file is now forever lost.

But recalling my own stupidity is not the point of this post. There’s plenty of time for that later. The point of this is rather to look back at my experience with the Sim series, a long-running and now seemingly dead series of games started by defunct developer Maxis. I say my experience because that’s just what it is: mine may be very different from others, because at some point I left the series behind. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say the series took off in a different direction and left me behind.

Game developer Will Wright, the man whose name comes up most often when talking about the Sim series, was faced with the problem in the mid-80s of how to create a game that would be fun to play and that focused not on fighting and destroying, but rather on building and maintaining. The game he and his team ended up making, SimCity, was a city-building simulator just as the name suggests. It had a hard time getting much distribution at first because of how different it was from the usual fare, but those distributors who rejected it must have felt like real assholes later on because the game became a hit.

No, it’s not a farming game despite the cow on the title screen. If you wanted to be a virtual farmer instead, you had to buy SimFarm, released a few years later.

I have serious respect for the original SimCity, but it’s not one of the Sim games I have fond memories of. First put out in 1989, it was slightly before my time, and even after it was polished and re-released as SimCity Classic I more or less skipped over it.1 No, the game that hooked me onto this series was the one I went back to when I was feeling nostalgic a few years ago: its sequel SimCity 2000. First released in 1993 on DOS and later ported to every system on Earth, SC2K was an improvement upon the original in every way. The old top-down view was replaced with a more satisfying isometric one. The constant building and rebuilding, abandonment and repopulation from month to month made the city feel more alive. But the changes weren’t just cosmetic: many more substantive city-building features were added as well.

And of course there were the disasters. These were also present in the original SimCity, but watching your city get wrecked by an earthquake, hurricane, or nuclear meltdown felt more exciting in this new isometric view. I know it doesn’t look like much today, but in the mid-90s this was really impressive to watch, and despite approaching 30 years old as of this writing, the game with its 90s graphics still feels just as functional and playable as it did then.

A tornado rips through the center of my city. Not much you can do in a case like this except wait for it to go away and rebuild.

Both this and SimCity Classic gave the player something they didn’t usually get: the power to create and to lord it over that creation. Not that this meant everything is necessarily going to go the player’s way. You have the ability to build, but you naturally have to pay for what you’re building, which in hard mode means taking out a municipal bond that has to be repaid with interest. And even if you’re doing well financially, your citizens might not be so happy with your performance. Cost-cutting measures like not building enough police and fire stations lead to higher crime rates and more fires breaking out, while skimping on hospitals and schools directly and immediately affects your citizens’ quality of life. And if you’re playing with disasters turned on, your city can be struck with tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires at any time — all disasters that are more difficult to manage if you’ve been too tight-fisted to build and properly fund those all-important services.

You might think that you’re safe from the wrath of your people no matter what you do. The citizens living in the world of SimCity 2000 are stuck with you: they can’t vote you out of office for doing a bad job or oust you from power in a coup. They can protest, however, and if they get pissed off enough riots can break out, leading to fires being set around your city. In the end, it’s enough of a hassle that even if you don’t care about your citizens’ happiness, it’s just easier to keep them content by following fair, sound policies.

This happens sometimes when you try to build a nuclear plant or a water treatment facility near a residential area. People don’t like pollution or the possibility of a horrific disastrous meltdown in their town, who would have guessed.

One of the reasons I think the SimCity games did so well was the balance they struck between accessibility and complexity. SimCity 2000 was easy to pick up and play without any preparation, but it also had enough respect for the player’s intelligence not to dumb things down. The game didn’t require you to manage municipal ordinances or to go through all its charts and adjust commercial and industrial tax rates, but if you wanted to mess around with those to try to make more money or spur growth you had that option. As a consequence, both children and their parents might get hooked on this game — it’s intuitive enough for a kid to pick up on quickly, but complex enough for a teenage or adult player looking for a challenge.

The most tutorial-style help SimCity 2000 gave the player in the course of normal play was advice provided by city officials on the budget screen, but again, you weren’t required to consult with them or to take their advice if you did. And sometimes said advice wasn’t even very good, just like you’d expect from a city council in real life.

For example, this nonsense. Legalized gambling is necessary to a city’s lifeblood in my opinion. The more unpleasant elements the better.

So the game let you play seriously if you felt like it. But if you weren’t feeling like it — say, if you had a hard day at school and wanted to let off some steam — you could also use the well-known cheat code to open debug mode (PRISCILLA, typed in all caps while holding the city toolbar, to this day I remember it.) This gave you access to unlimited money and rewards like statues, mansions, and the city-within-a-city arcologies. It also let you wreck everything with an expanded list of disasters that you could trigger. The normal disaster menu let you freely start the usual fires, riots, tornadoes, and earthquakes. But now, like a vengeful god, you could make a volcano rise out of the earth and swallow your city up (or rise off in an uninhabited corner of the map — it seemed to be random where it ended up.)

This part of the city looks nice and idyllic now but just wait until the wrath of God hits it.

SimCity 2000 stole dozens of hours of my childhood that might have been better spent outside in the sun. That’s what some people say, anyway. I’m not sure I believe that myself. And that’s just as well, because this wasn’t the only Sim game that occupied my time. SimTower was released for PC in 1994, and I jumped on it. This one wasn’t developed by Maxis but rather by the Japanese company OpenBook Co., later renamed Vivarium, under the leadership of famous strange game developer Yoot Saito.

But I didn’t know any of that at the time. To me, this was like a followup to SimCity, only scaled down from a city to a single building — a concept that really appealed to me. I felt like I was building a tower that might exist in one of those cities I built in SC2K, one of the big skyscrapers in the heavy commercial zones. Even though it was made by a different developer and was merely branded with the Sim name when ported over to America (in Japan it was simply titled The Tower) SimTower felt like it fit in well with SimCity thematically, which is likely part of why Maxis rebranded and published it here in the first place.

A basic office building like this is easy to build and maintain, but a real skyscraper in SimTower takes way more micromanagement to keep up.

When I wrote a short retrospective on this game years ago, I called it a happiness management simulator, and I stand by that description. Look at all those people lined up in front of the elevators in pink and red: those colors denote progressively more pissed-off tenants and visitors. Elevators quickly reach capacity and just as in real life, people don’t want to take the stairs. Meanwhile, each office, condo, and hotel room you build also has a quality meter that takes a hit if it’s too close to a busy restaurant or shop. And of course, if the shops and restaurants you build don’t get enough traffic, they lose money, and that’s on you somehow — instead of collecting your rent, you either end up paying to keep the place open or axe it and try over. All this day-to-day activity on a smaller scale makes SimTower a little more hectic-feeling than SimCity, but I still liked the feeling of building something and seeing it run, even if my creation kind of sucked at making money.

Years later, I picked up Yoot Tower, which was not released under the Sim name but was a sequel to SimTower in every way right down to the visual style. It seemed to have a few mechanics problems, such as certain businesses being automatic failures no matter where or when you built them (maybe this was intentional, but in that case I’d ask why the hell include those?) but it was still pretty fun seeing how this game expanded on the original.

Why did I even build this stupid ramen shop, nobody likes it

In the mid-90s, however, I was still hooked on SimCity along with a couple of other simulation and strategy games, so much so that I bought SimCopter when it came out in 1996. This was a helicopter flight sim that let you fly around the custom cities you built in SC2K putting out fires and transporting citizens in medical airlifts. Never mind that the game looked like complete ass. It was still a good time flying around the cities you built solving problems or causing even worse problems. Maxis knew the same players who started disasters in their own cities in SC2K would also try to destroy their cities from the inside in SimCopter, so the game lets them cause chaos in ways that it doesn’t really have to: dragging passengers’ icons outside your helicopter actually kicks them out of the vehicle, even if you’re a thousand feet in the air, and visiting a military base in your city lets you steal an Apache that shoots actual missiles. If you’re wondering what happens if you steal an Apache in SimCopter and use it on a nuclear plant, Maxis thought of that too — it was almost more fun causing horrible disasters in your cities than playing the missions and making money to upgrade your helicopter the proper way.

While games like SimCopter and Streets of SimCity were fun diversions, they seemingly didn’t make much of an impact on anyone. Not so for the next big idea Maxis had, which around the beginning of 2000 would start an entirely new spinoff series of games, one of the best-selling of all time. Although it was both critically acclaimed and a massive commercial success, The Sims was where the series lost me. Not that I angrily swore off the Sim series claiming I’d been betrayed or anything dramatic like that. It just didn’t provide what I was looking for when I picked up a Sim game. And since The Sims was more or less what the entire series became rolling into the 2000s as the original sold millions of copies, I naturally drifted away from it.

Relive the excitement of the shitty house you rented your last two years of college!

Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit unfair with the above screenshot, because the game lets you do a lot more than recreate a sad existence eating cold pizza in a three-room house. It was advertised as a sort of life simulator, taking you down to the level of the individual people living in a suburb, perhaps just the sort of suburb you might have built in the then-recently released SimCity 3000. You had the option of starting with a family of one to eight people and either buying a pre-built house or building a new house for them to occupy. After your characters, called “Sims” in a tradition stretching back to the old SimCity days, were named and appointed to a house, they started living their everyday lives.

And that’s where almost all the gameplay lies. Left to their own devices, your Sims go about their days, pursuing hobbies, entertaining themselves, and interacting with each other. They have autonomy, and they’ll generally do what they need to do to fulfill their desires: eat, sleep, shower, talk to each other, play games, watch TV, and so on. However, they also have to make money (not to pay rent — they live rent and mortgage-free somehow, which is very convenient, but food, furniture, and other goods still have to be paid for.) So you need to press them to get jobs. Children automatically go to school, but some of your adult Sims can be kept unemployed if you want to keep control of them 24/7.

Build mode lets you design and furnish your own house.

The Sims is largely a social simulator — your Sims gain and lose points with each other in their various interactions, and both love and hate can bloom between them. However, the building process is also an important part of the game. I imagine The Sims is at least twice as fun if you’re into interior design, because the game gives the player quite a few options to choose from: wallpaper, siding, floors, light fixtures, many styles of door and window, and of course a lot of furniture ranging from crappy-looking and cheap to posh and expensive. Gardening fans also have the option of planting trees and bushes outside. Your Sims appreciate getting some fresh air, so a nice garden serves them well. It takes some extra money, but building a pool is a good way of completing your Sims’ home.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Your Sims have that autonomy, and they’ll use it to get to their jobs on their own and do the other things that are absolutely necessary like eating and using the bathroom. However, they also have their own personalities that are set through point systems in the character creation screen, and they’ll act according to their likes and dislikes. A naturally messy Sim won’t be quick to clean up spills, for instance. In extreme cases, if a Sim neglects the bathroom (or if you were an asshole who didn’t bother to build a proper bathroom in your house) they might piss themselves and leave a puddle on the floor. Even worse, your Sims can potentially miss work if they’re distracted by other things. Urine can be cleaned up, at least, but money that goes unmade can’t be made back unless you have a time machine.

With only one or two Sims to deal with, this stuff isn’t too hard to manage. But with eight, all with different personalities and their own likes and dislikes running headlong into each other, things can easily turn chaotic.

Some dumbass starts a fire in the kitchen. This and the other examples I’m using here are official pre-release screenshots from Maxis (the actual game replaces that ugly “GO HERE” button with something nicer and adds toolbars and extra functions) but this is essentially what happens if a disaster strikes: your Sims waving their arms around and being useless, panicky idiots.

I can’t really criticize any of this too much. The Sims was very well-made, with great attention to detail. Much like the older Sim titles, it didn’t feature characters or a story but let the player more or less create their own, and it put the same kind of emphasis on balancing micromanagement and long-term planning.

It still didn’t work for me. Maybe I was just bored with watching a bunch of simulated people live lives that weren’t really that different from our own real-world ones. There was just something so mundane about The Sims that I couldn’t get past. I guess SimCity and SimTower were just as mundane in a way: they also took place in realistic modern-day settings and involved managing money and people to some extent. But they also felt different. I’d never have the ability to control an entire building or city in real life unless I somehow became an insanely powerful CEO or an emperor or someone like that, and I had the sense even as a child that that was not going to happen. Living an everyday life, however — that was something I was already doing when I played The Sims, and it’s still something I do today. Why did I need to recreate that? I didn’t even like my regular life very much, and playing what amounted to a smaller, simpler version of that life didn’t provide the kind of escape I normally looked for in games.

Is this really a kind of escapism, by contrast? Maybe all this is saying more about me than about these games.

This is where my time with the Sim series just about ended. I did buy SimCity 4 when it came out a few years later, and it was a great update to SimCity 2000 and 3000 before it (why they didn’t just continue that trend and call it SimCity 4000 I don’t know; maybe they felt silly about the “thousand” part of the title at that point.) It was nothing new to me, though. The graphics were nicer and more detailed, and there were many more building options and features to choose from, but the old excitement of creation just wasn’t there anymore.

That lack of excitement had nothing to do with SimCity 4 itself. I’d bet that if I were ten years younger, I’d be talking about it in just the same way I talk about SimCity 2000. I’d also bet that there are players out there five or ten years older than me who felt that excitement with the original SimCity and didn’t feel it with SimCity 2000. The first four SimCity titles are excellent games; I believe how you feel about each is largely a matter of which one you started with.

My SimCity 4 city is just as shitty as my SimCity 2000 ones

The fact that I don’t have any nostalgic feelings for The Sims may also have a bit to do with the age at which I played it, but I think that’s more a case of my simply not liking the premise very much. Too bad for me, because that’s the basket where Maxis and its new parent company Electronic Arts put almost all their eggs. The first Sims was followed in the next few years by seven separate expansion packs, not counting later deluxe editions that tied some or all of those expansions to the base game. The Sims 2 and 3 were released in 2004 and 2009, along with their own dozens of expansion packs and with similar critical and commercial success.

I was off the ride at that point, but my ears still perked up when I heard about the newest SimCity release planned to come out in 2013. The release of what was essentially supposed to be SimCity 52 would result in a public relations disaster for EA and Maxis, and the abysmal reception that it received is arguably a large part of the reason that no major Sim titles have been put out in the last seven years other than The Sims 4, which was already well into development at the time. What happened, then?

A promo screenshot of an intersection in 2013’s SimCity.

The new SimCity looked beautiful, but it had the worst release imaginable. Because while it was widely expected to be a principally singleplayer game like its predecessors, it required a connection to EA’s servers to run. The servers crashed upon release, however, so nobody could play the damn game. This was a double whammy for EA and Maxis — first, the fact that having bought a $60 game (still considered a fairly high price tag for a game in 2013) most of its owners could not play it, and second, that it required a connection to play in the first place. The developer and publisher’s defenses of their actions (that they weren’t actually deceiving anyone, and particularly that it wasn’t in anyone’s interest to play SimCity in offline mode) were worse than useless, seen by many as disingenuous and insulting towards the fans. Even Will Wright, who had left Maxis behind well before development started, took shots at his old company for essentially putting DRM into the game that broke it for legitimate players.3

At the time, I watched all this happen, and then I watched EA and Maxis scramble to reassure everyone that The Sims 4, planned for release in 2014, would be playable offline. And though I was very put off by how they handled the whole matter, I think I was done with the series anyway at that point. I likely would have checked SimCity out just out of curiosity, and because it really did look that good, at least from the promotional materials and pre-release videos. But it wasn’t something I was obsessing over, and I didn’t really lose out on much in the end.

But what about the kids who were around that same age I was when I first got hooked on SimCity 2000? It seems to me that they were cheated out of a potentially great experience. To this day, the new SimCity carries a poor reputation, one not helped by the fact that it was also reportedly pretty buggy on release. The go-to city-building games as a result now seem to be SimCity 4 — 17 years old as of this writing, but seen as the last true SimCity game by a lot of fans — and Cities: Skylines, a series put out by serious-business ultra-complex strategy game publisher Paradox.

Cities: Skylines might be good, but does it have stupid-looking mad libs style newspaper articles?

Maybe it’s just my sense of nostalgia talking again. Maybe Cities: Skylines is really a great game, a true successor to the old SimCity titles. But I do think something was lost when EA and Maxis screwed up the new SimCity release and then blamed the players for not accepting the new situation they were trying to create with their always-online scheme. There was no reason the series had to die. It’s not like these PC game series have expiration dates. Sid Meier’s Civilization series, one of my other childhood favorites, has been going strong for almost 30 years now without much trouble. No, it seems like sheer arrogance killed the Sim series. Even though I don’t care for The Sims that much, I can see why a lot of people loved and still love that game and its sequels. And I can also see why a lot of people hated what the series turned into in 2013 and why they turned their backs on it.

Despite all that, the impact the Sim series had on me and a lot of other people has been significant. It took an unusual game concept that hadn’t been tried on a large scale by the late 80s and proved it had wide appeal if done right. Even if it was just a simplified simulation, it showed us the workings of a city, how it was almost like a living organism that could thrive or wither based on how it was maintained and what conditions it was subjected to. And it taught us the joys of making a new save file probably titled [city name]-2 and then unleashing fires, riots, and UFO attacks on said city to see just how much would be left standing after the chaos ended. Many of the same lessons go for SimTower, and though it didn’t work for me, I think The Sims had a similar impact for others. Even if the Sim series is permanently dead now, that impact will never go away. It’s something worth remembering.

***

Sorry, I didn’t mean to get so melancholic by the end. I really feel old after writing all that, scouring my memories of the series and how I felt about it. It all feels like it happened a lifetime ago. There are also a lot of highly praised Sim titles like SimAnt and SimFarm that I didn’t even touch on because I never played them, but I’m sure players have plenty of good memories of those games as well. I don’t know if anyone has any especially good memories of the new SimCity, but if you do, please feel free to leave a comment. A different perspective is always interesting to hear. 𒀭

 

1 I did own SimCity Classic, but only because I ordered it out of the Scholastic catalogue thinking it was that SimCity 2000 game I’d played some of on my cousin’s computer. Still a good game, but I was quite disappointed when it came in the mail and I realized my mistake.

2 I know I’m not even close to the first person to point this out, but it seems like new games released in long-running series that are put out with exactly the same titles as their respective originals have all failed to capture the feeling of those originals: Sonic the Hedgehog in 2006, SimCity in 2013, Thief in 2014. And though it’s a movie, let’s not forget Ghostbusters in 2016, which despite getting a lot of critical praise and some mild commercial success has since been hidden away and almost totally forgotten. It’s almost like there was unwarranted pride at work in all these cases.

3 To be fair, Wright faced his own DRM-related backlash with the less botched but still controversial release of his own game Spore in 2008. I guess he’d learned his lesson by this point.

Deep reads #3: Just a little broken (Planetarian)

What’s the line between human and machine? If an artificial intelligence were created that seemed so natural and lifelike that we treated it as human, would there effectively be no difference between that artificial life and a natural one? And do these questions even really matter?

If there’s a mandatory reading/playing list of visual novels, Planetarian would have to be on it. First released in Japan on PC in 2004, this kinetic novel has gotten both fan and official translations on several platforms and is now widely considered a classic of the medium, and rightly so. This isn’t my favorite VN, but it is one I enjoy and respect a whole lot, and it takes on the above questions in a unique and interesting way.

Before I begin my look at Planetarian, however, I want to lay out exactly what approach I’m taking with it. I initially tried to write this as a normal review, but then I kept writing until I had a whole damn treatise on the thing. So it’s full of spoilers, both for Planetarian and a certain popular sci-fi film with some surface similarities that I contrast it with, one that took a promising premise and managed to completely shit it up in its last ten minutes (and one that was marketed partly through a harebrained scheme using a fake Tinder profile to catfish SXSW attendees. Okay, it’s Ex Machina.) So if you want to go into either of these raw, here’s your warning.

I do want to persuade people who haven’t experienced Planetarian yet to check it out, though, so here’s a one-sentence no-spoiler review: if you like the idea of a short post-apocalypse sci-fi story with excellent characterization, voice-acting, and music, but no branching decision points or route because it’s a kinetic VN, you should like it. I think the ending of this work is pretty well known by now since Planetarian has been around in various forms for 16 years, but I still feel the need to put a warning up here. It’s only a few hours long anyway, so it’s not a huge time investment.

The basic premise of Planetarian is that the world has gone completely to hell. About thirty years after a nuclear war and its aftermath destroyed almost all of humanity, Earth is only inhabited by still-operating autonomous weapons and a scattering of human survivors doing their best to live off of the ruins of their dead civilization. A constant radioactive downpour simply called “the Rain” makes this new world even more difficult to live in. In the midst of all this misery is our unnamed protagonist, simply called the Junker, a man who makes a living off of salvaging useful scraps from the old world to trade with: parts, food supplies, and the extremely rare and valuable preserved packs of cigarettes and bottles of liquor. Junker is exactly the kind of protagonist you’d expect to find in a post-apocalyptic work like this. He’s tough and battle-hardened, always armed and on the lookout for valuables and potential enemies, both mechanical and human.

At the opening of Planetarian, Junker has come across a “sarcophagus city”, a settlement that has been heavily fortified against attack. Unfortunately, those defenses weren’t quite enough: the city was abandoned by its population long ago, left to become yet another ruin. This is an opportunity for Junker, who thinks he may be able to salvage some useful items here.

There is one other being still operating in this dead city. Her name is Hoshino Yumemi, a robot built in the form of a young woman. Despite the fact that the city had been long since destroyed and emptied of its population, Yumemi still works for exactly one week per year as the receptionist, usher, and hostess of the Flowercrest Department Store’s planetarium, spending the rest of her time in sleep mode charging at a station that’s still working off of a trickle of power somehow still available from a nearby vacant military installation. Since the outbreak of the global war and the exodus from the city, however, the planetarium hasn’t seen any business — not until Junker arrives there looking for shelter.

Junker is shocked to find a young woman alone in this ruin and immediately suspects a trap, but he soon realizes that Yumemi is just a robot who has been operating autonomously all this time. As Yumemi herself explains, she was left in charge of the planetarium while the human staff were out. Since the day they left the city almost thirty years ago, she has carried out her duties to the best of her ability for the one week per year that she’s able to operate. And what luck — she happens to be freshly recharged and active when Junker arrives. Yumemi, seemingly oblivious to Junker’s appearance and all the destruction around her, processes him as a customer, greets him warmly, and tells him that in honor of his status as the 2,500,000th customer the staff has prepared a special projection that she intends to show him. She then offers him a makeshift bouquet made of wires and junk she found lying around, apologizing profusely and explaining that the florist’s shop downstairs had unexpectedly closed for the time being. She also admits that he’s not really the 2,500,000th customer, but she’s rounding up because there hasn’t been much business lately.

Junker naturally does not give a shit about any of this. After trying without success to explain to Yumemi that he’s not a god damn customer, he lays out his supplies and equipment to dry, then drifts off to sleep in one of the planetarium’s seats. When he wakes up, Yumemi is still around performing her duties, and she cheerfully greets him, addressing him as “Mr. Customer” (or okyakusama, a term like “honored guest” that doesn’t quite translate because we don’t have a similar term in common use in English) and doing her best to serve his needs. Of course, Yumemi can’t really serve Junker’s needs. When she offers him a refreshment, he asks whether she has any liquor in sealed bottles, and she tells him there are liquor shops on a lower floor. Tragically, that lower floor is completely flooded and inaccessible, so Junker can’t even have a nice drink to calm him down.

Yumemi continues to insist that she’ll show Junker the projection, and he finally gives in to her demands if only to shut her up. However, there’s a problem: the projector is broken. No big surprise, since the planetarium has been inactive for nearly 30 years, but Yumemi is seriously distressed when the projector doesn’t move or respond at the start of the show. Since she was built to be a sort of greeter/hostess and not a maintenance worker, there’s not much Yumemi can do to fix the giant machine, and so she asks Junker if he can repair “Miss Jena” as Yumemi refers to it.

This leads to the first of two fateful decisions Junker makes. By deciding to help Yumemi out, Junker takes up valuable time and energy that he admits he should be using to get the hell out of the city and resupply. He’s established that the planetarium and attached mall don’t have anything of value to him. Yet he stays and starts working on Jena, an extremely complex piece of equipment with a bunch of small moving parts that hasn’t been maintained for three decades. Meanwhile, Yumemi can only stand by and express her concern. She clearly feels bad about asking a valued customer to repair one of the planetarium’s machines and tries to help Junker by asking him if various tools might be useful, but it’s obvious she wasn’t designed for that sort of thing, so she steps back and lets him work.

After a couple of days of work, Jena is finally repaired, and Yumemi is able to run the special projection she had planned. Junker is still anxious to get the hell out of there, but once the lights dim and Yumemi starts her presentation, he’s drawn in. So much so that when the power fails for good shortly after the projection starts, Junker asks Yumemi to continue her monologue as he closes his eyes and uses his imagination to fill in the visual gaps.

If you’ve read Planetarian already, this may seem like a weird statement, but this scene provided the biggest emotional punch for me as Yumemi talks about the birth and growth of the human race and of its reaching out to the stars through the space program. The same space program that was in progress when the global war began 30 years ago, destroying its base on the Moon, grounding its spaceships, and and eventually killing the great majority of humanity. It’s all the more heartbreaking because, despite the fact that she’s a robot, Yumemi seems genuinely proud of humanity’s growth, just as though she were human herself. But her information is painfully outdated. Junker knows the truth of the matter all too well, but he lets Yumemi finish without saying anything about it.

When the show is over, Junker is ready to leave. But not without Yumemi. This second serious decision puts Junker at yet another disadvantage — Yumemi doesn’t seem to understand how dire the situation is outside the mall and planetarium, and she’s already told Junker that she’s not designed to handle rough environments or to move very quickly. Junker nevertheless doesn’t want to leave her there, and presses the facts on her that the planetarium won’t recover its limited source of power again and that she’ll never see another customer show up. Yumemi still seems optimistic despite Junker’s warnings, so when she offers to walk him to his car, a sort of post-apocalypse combat vehicle, he takes her up on her offer and decides to bring her along with him to a nearby inhabited settlement.

Getting to his vehicle is no easy matter, however, and it’s even more difficult when he’s essentially doing an escort mission. Yumemi trips several times and admits that she hasn’t been very well maintained lately. But she still keeps her spirits up, pointing out popular restaurants and attractions around town and printing coupons from the port in her ear for him to use, apparently not recognizing that that they’ve all been long abandoned and lay in ruins. Eventually, after several breaks to let Yumemi recover and prevent her from overheating, they reach the city wall, close to Junker’s car. A giant tank with a massive gun sits at the entrance of an opening in the wall through which they’ll have to pass, but Junker believes trying it would be suicide — despite the end of the war, the automated weapons deployed back then are still active and will attack anything that moves. So Junker tells Yumemi to hang back in a relatively safe place while he tries to destroy the tank with a grenade launcher.

Junker’s grenade is unfortunately a dud, and the tank turns its gun on him. He manages to escape and mostly disable the machine against all odds in the game’s only action scene, but it’s still barely functional and is about to kill Junker when Yumemi steps between them in a dramatic Tienanmen Square moment.

Yumemi tries to send the tank an electronic signal to get it to stop attacking, but in its final moments it shoots its gun directly at her.

Yumemi is torn apart at the waist, but she’s still able to function for a few minutes, just long enough to show Junker some of her memories recorded in her eyes: of happy guests, adults and children, telling her how much they enjoyed their time at the planetarium, and of the rest of the staff being forced to evacuate the city and saying their painful goodbyes to her. She then reveals that she realized long ago the planetarium was finished, but that she was happy to see one more customer show up. As she finally shuts down, Yumemi opens the port containing her memory card, and Junker takes it and seals it in a waterproof case, resolving to find a new body for her somehow so she can live again.

And that’s Planetarian. Quite a sad story in typical Key style — this studio is well known for creating melancholic visual novels. As miserable as the whole thing might seem, though, the story of Planetarian is not a hopeless one. Yumemi’s body is destroyed in the end, but her mind essentially lives on, waiting for Junker to find a new vessel for it.

What’s more interesting to me than the ending is the relationship created between Junker and Yumemi, a human and a robot. From the beginning it’s no secret that Yumemi is not a human, and a lot of her mannerisms reinforce that. When asked a question she doesn’t know the answer to, for example, she’ll tilt her head a bit and then deliver word-for-word the same response about not being able to make contact with some control center that she’s programmed to message in such cases. Her insistence upon carrying out her regular duties in a workplace that’s clearly been abandoned and left to rot for thirty years also seems kind of inhuman. A human would have left the planetarium behind long ago, just as Yumemi’s coworkers did, but she keeps performing her programmed duties faithfully.

But there are things about Yumemi that also seem strangely human. One of these is her extreme talkativeness. Yumemi simply won’t shut up. Junker is clearly annoyed by this and tries giving her a command to stop talking — a command that she acknowledges for about ten seconds before breaking it and asking him a question, after which he gives up trying.

Yumemi explains that this chattiness is caused by an error in her programming, one that was never fixed because the staff of the planetarium thought she was cuter for it. She refers to herself as “just a little broken” both because of that design flaw and her recent lack of maintenance. Certainly, Yumemi doesn’t act like a perfectly honed android of the kind you might see in some other sci-fi works, but these imperfections made her seem all the more human to me. She also constantly shows genuine concern for Junker despite having just met him, asking if he’s feeling sick and offering to call the mall’s medical center that she doesn’t realize is now abandoned. Indeed, Yumemi seems determined to help Junker out and tend to his needs as the “customer” he is, even when he insists he’s not one.

Considering all this, it’s not a great leap for Junker to start thinking of Yumemi as less of a machine and more of a human, at least in terms of how he treats her. The pair have the kind of chemistry where one complements the other — Junker’s bitter, harsh, practical attitude with Yumemi’s optimistic and cheerful one — and they start to have real conversations by the end of his stay at the planetarium. The first time I read through Planetarian, I thought it was a bit weird that this extremely pragmatic guy would decide to bring a slow, partially broken robot along with him through the streets of the city, where autonomous, heavily armed tanks were still operating. Junker wonders that himself and doesn’t seem to understand exactly why he’s doing it. But there has been a connection created between the two when the final part of the VN begins, to the point that I can believe Junker simply couldn’t allow himself to leave Yumemi alone in the now unpowered mall to shut down — effectively to die, left to be “harvested” for her parts by other junkers as he puts it.

This is where Planetarian totally departs from a lot of other modern sci-fi. When I watched the 2014 film Ex Machina a while back, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Planetarian and how completely different each work was in spirit, despite the fact that they both deal with human/AI interaction. Ex Machina takes place in a near-future Earth that’s still thriving, in which the eccentric genius CEO of a massive search engine company has built a line of realistic androids. Said CEO rigs up a fake contest to select one of his employees, a coder/programmer type named Caleb, to spend a week at his high-tech, high-security mansion in the wilderness. There Caleb gets the chance to run a series of tests by having conversations with Ava, like Yumemi an android in the shape of a young woman. Ava seems to be curious both about the outside world, which she hasn’t seen, and about Caleb himself. She also comes off as having an almost human-seeming sense of humor and a pretty sharp wit. After a few days of testing, Ava tells Caleb that she knows he’s attracted to her, that she’s attracted to him, and that she wants him to help her break out of the CEO’s mansion and escape.

Despite their efforts to conceal these parts of their conversations, the CEO realizes what’s going on, but in a double-twist Caleb reveals that he outsmarted the CEO by secretly fucking with the power system so that he’d be sealed inside his own high-security bunker of a house without being able to get out while Ava and Caleb would run away together. CEO tries killing the plan by ordering Ava to go back to her room, but she and another android get the better of him in a fight and stab him to death. We’ve seen him act like a real asshole to them throughout the film, so sure, this makes sense. However, in a final betrayal, Ava traps Caleb in the house and escapes without him, leaving him to die as well. The end.

Does this remind anyone else of those old creepy Svedka ads? Is it just me?

What message is to be taken from Ex Machina exactly? Caleb admittedly didn’t think through his actions fully, but he was motivated by a desire to help Ava escape because he essentially saw her as human, or at least as a being deserving of human rights. While Caleb did mean to seal the CEO into a virtual tomb in the course of his plan, he also found and watched tapes of said CEO treating the androids like garbage during tests and generally being a dick, and he also knows of his plan to erase Ava’s memory at the end of this testing phase. So his feelings are a bit understandable. However, the relationship Caleb thinks he has with Ava is pure fantasy. She’s been manipulating him this whole time, and far from being grateful for his help, she traps him and effectively murders him at the end of the film for no clear reason that I can understand, other than director/screenwriter Alex Garland wanting to throw a final twist in to shock us.

At first, Ex Machina left me asking “so fucking what?” The actors are good (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as Caleb and the CEO, for you Star Wars sequel trilogy fans if there are any left, and Alicia Vikander as Ava) and the look and feel of the movie in general are pretty nice, so I can’t exactly call it total garbage. But the writing. The first 100 minutes of the movie now seem entirely pointless, with its attempts at making me feel bad for the plight of Ava by making her come off as self-aware and sympathetic — such a being would have at least recognized Caleb as her ally and let him live, even if she’d been manipulating him up to that point. But no, turns out she’s nothing of the sort, more of a HAL from 2001 sort of character. Only 2001 took the time to establish HAL as a scary psychopath sort of AI making the course of the story believable, whereas Ex Machina just throws us an ending twist without bothering to set it up in the slightest.

So the message I’m forced to take from Ex Machina — because there clearly is a message in there; everything about the film suggests it’s meant to be taken as Serious Art instead of a basic horror movie — is that we can’t trust those god damn androids because there’s no way they’ll treat us with any care or affection despite what we might think. This is a depressingly pessimistic message. That’s fine with me; I’m a depressingly pessimistic guy myself, so I get that.

But what I can’t forgive is the sheer dishonesty of it. Ex Machina presents a dark future without any real argument to back it up. While many critics and fans have praised Ex Machina, I believe Garland completely screws up its treatment of its central human/AI relationship, which is quite an unbelievable and stilted-feeling one created to express the message, when the message should instead flow naturally from a believable story. Planetarian also depicts a dark future for humanity in its global war and post-apocalyptic setting, but in creating the relationship between Junker and Yumemi it doesn’t try to pull a cynical trick on the reader. Yumemi is exactly what she seems from the first time Junker meets her — an android who likes the company of both her machine and human colleagues. She has fond memories of working with the planetarium staff and helping customers and has a desire to continue her work.

Whether that’s because she’s programmed to do so doesn’t seem to matter anymore, at least not to Junker. By the end, he doesn’t see her as a mere piece of machinery. Yumemi herself, while conscious of the fact that she’s a robot, doesn’t want to be separated from humans. This is the meaning of her saying “please do not divide Heaven in two”, one of the game’s best-known lines — when she asks whether Junker has ever prayed to God, a weird sort of theological question comes up about whether there might be a separate God of Robots. Yumemi says her coworkers told her that robots get to go to their own Heaven when they shut down, but because she doesn’t want machines to be separated from humans, she prays that they can all go to the same Heaven.

This is where I think you can find the optimism in Planetarian. It’s a sad story with a bitter ending, sure. But there is hope in the end, both for Junker and Yumemi, and maybe for both humans and machines beyond them, living in the world together. Yumemi sees both organic humans and other, non-humanoid machines like Jena as her friends and colleagues, and she even says Junker shouldn’t blame the tank for what it did — in the end, it was simply doing its best to carry out its duties faithfully.

This view is very different from the one given by works like Ex Machina, in which humans create technology that ends up destroying them of its own will. In those works, there’s an assumption that any form of advanced AI will necessarily be separate from the natural world. Humans are animals, androids are machines, and there can’t be any meaningful emotional relationship between them. When a well-meaning character like Caleb foolishly believes he’s created one with an android like Ava, she ends up betraying him. She can’t empathize with him, and he was stupid to think he could empathize with her. Planetarian, by contrast, does not make any such assumptions. Humans started the global war that wrecked civilization. They used technology to do it, but the story doesn’t give any indication that the AI employed in the war rebelled against their human creators or did anything other than follow the orders given to them.

I’m not saying a robot apocalypse will never happen. But it seems both disingenuous and lazy to just assume that advanced AI will definitely turn against its creators when you’re putting together a work of fiction, or that they’ll even necessarily see themselves as that different from their creators.

I wrote at the start of this post that Planetarian isn’t my favorite visual novel. While I don’t have any problem with kinetic novels, I prefer VNs that give the player dialogue and action options and branching story paths. And I don’t know if writer Yuichi Suzumoto is responsible for this or if it’s the translation, but the prose occasionally gets really awkward — just see the above screenshot for an example. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but those instances stick out and hurt an otherwise good game.

But I’d still rank this pretty highly among the VNs I’ve played. A good story can end with disaster and total despair, but the way it gets to that ending is important. Planetarian doesn’t take the same straightforward, lazy “technology is bad” route that Ex Machina and many other modern sci-fi works go with. And it’s not afraid to express the hope at the end that maybe things won’t be so miserable one day, and what the hell is wrong with that? Nothing. In real life, people keep hope alive even in the worst of circumstances, so it’s not a sin to give your audience some hope as well, despite what some writers and directors seem to think.

And that’s true even if that hope directly follows a tearjerker scene. I mean, I didn’t cry when Yumemi got blown up. Really, I didn’t. I just had bad allergies that day. You know how that pollen is in the spring.

***

I hope I’ve represented Planetarian well enough here. It also has anime OVA and film adaptations that I haven’t seen, but I’ve heard good things.

I also want to note that I’m not trying to do a “western vs. Japanese take” comparison with this commentary. Reading back through it, all the crap I dumped on Ex Machina might make it seem that way to some people, and everyone knows I’m a degenerate weeb after all, but it’s not the case. I only meant to highlight two approaches sci-fi writers have taken with regard to human/AI relationships and how I think one is more natural and honest than the other. If you want proof of my sincerity, here you go: the Spike Jonze movie Her does thousands of times better at this than Ex Machina, and it involves an actually believable romance between a human and an AI character if that’s what you’re looking for. 𒀭

Deep reads #2.4: The cost of revenge (Disgaea 5)

There are a few reasons why I’m jumping over three very worthy sequels to look at 2015’s Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance for this final Disgaea post. One is that I just really like Disgaea 5. Another is that I’ve played it recently and have it fresh in my mind, avoiding the need to go back and review much of the game’s content to write about it in a meaningful way.

However, the most important reason I decided to pick up D5 for a closer look is its strong contrast with the first game in terms of their characters and stories. Both include a lot of wacky, bizarre humor along with a fair dose of drama. Disgaea 5 turns that contrast between over-the-top humor and drama way up, however. It turns the contrast up so high that some people may accuse it of having a problem with wild and inappropriate tonal shifts.

Yeah, this girl might be wearing goofy-looking bunny ears and a bow tie but this is a serious scene, damn it.

I wouldn’t agree with that. Not so much, anyway. I do think Disgaea 5 lays on the drama thick, much thicker than Disgaea 1 did, and that it swings pretty quickly from light comedy to heavy drama and back. Part of this heavier drama stems from the fact that the villains in this story really are serious villains who do bad things, unlike D1‘s villains who were more malicious, incompetent assholes than actual threats. It can make it difficult to pour wacky comedy into this mix and have it work.

But Disgaea 5 does work. I have one issue with it, especially when I contrast it with Disgaea 1. But we’ll get to that stupid insignificant nitpick soon enough, and it really is insignificant. To the subject at hand now: what the hell is going on in this game?

The story of Disgaea 5 begins in the middle of a war. The opening scene takes place quite literally in the middle of it on a battlefield, where two armies of demons are standing off. If you were new to the series when you picked this game up, the phrase “demon armies fighting a battle” might conjure an image of Lord of the Rings-style masses of scary-looking orcs, but of course these armies are made of the same somewhat cartoony anime-ized units you’ve been able to recruit starting from D1. To add to that disconnect, the demon overlord acting as commander of the attacking army, Seraphina, is a young woman who’s dressed in the exact opposite of what would be appropriate for a battlefield — she rather looks like she’s ready to go out clubbing. She does have a pistol at her side, but that’s the only sign that she’s a combatant, and she doesn’t seem all that willing to do any fighting herself.

Seraphina’s soldiers (Prinnies, those same penguin-looking guys from Disgaea 1) are doing their best to attack the enemy, but they’re losing the fight badly. Just before the other side is about to break through their line and overrun them, however, a mysterious, very edgy-looking stranger shows up out of nowhere and sits down right in the middle of the battlefield. This guy then pulls out a bowl of food and starts eating. Seraphina asks him what he’s thinking having lunch so calmly between two fighting armies. Instead of giving her a straight answer, he finishes his meal and then kills the enemy’s entire company with his powerful techniques. Introducing himself as Killia, the stranger then starts to leave, off to find another battle.

Seraphina is extremely impressed with Killia’s talent at killing (perhaps that’s why he was named Killia?) So when he tries to take off, she holds him at gunpoint and tells him he’s now her servant. So much for doing good deeds for strangers. In his now-exhausted state he can’t resist her, so Killia reluctantly follows Seraphina back to her place, a “pocket Netherworld” that looks a lot like a space station-based combination shopping mall/casino. Seraphina tells Killia to make himself at home. And despite Killia’s eagerness to get away (and his annoyance with Seraphina’s constant insistence that he’s fallen in love with her, because why else would he have saved her life) he does just that, becoming the new general of Seraphina’s forces and letting her take a hands-off management role that suits her character better. Killia, for his part, shocks every other demon he meets with his politeness and his readiness to apologize when he feels he’s wronged or offended someone — a real oddity for a demon it seems, and especially for one so powerful.

Oh yeah, Seraphina also does that weird “oh-hohohoho” anime lady laugh. Get used to that.

It turns out that Killia’s sudden appearance was a very lucky thing. The chief of that enemy army, the self-proclaimed demon emperor Void Dark, is extremely powerful, both in terms of his personal power and the size of his forces. At the opening of Disgaea 5, this Void Dark is in the process of conquering all the various Netherworlds (there are multiple Netherworlds now that the game treats sort of like different planets, a difference from the early titles.) He also has no problem with killing his enemies on the spot, or even with killing his own men if they displease him. “Chief Secretary to Void Dark” may be the most dangerous job in this universe for how often he cycles through them, and I don’t mean they’re just laid off. Captured demon overlords are also at risk, since Void enjoys showing off how powerful he is by fighting them himself.

He seems to genuinely enjoy being an evil asshole. It’s nice to see a guy with such passion for his work.

Seraphina has been doing her best to fight this demonic Genghis Khan vampire-looking guy, but on her own she couldn’t do much. Now with Killia press-ganged into her army, she can effectively fight the jerk and start building a coalition of demon overlords against him. It helps that Killia seems to hate Void Dark for some reason that he won’t talk about. Killia’s hatred for Void Dark comes off as a lot more personal than everyone else’s, in fact, but Void is a bad guy after all, so it’s only natural. And hey, Killia keeps pulling out this flower encased in ice and talking to it in a bitter, remorseful way, referring to someone named “Lieze.” What could that mean? I’m sure it’s not important to the plot at all.

The story now follows Seraphina, Killia and their growing army as they travel around trying to liberate Netherworlds from Void Dark’s massive forces, who call themselves the Lost Army. In the course of freeing these worlds, your party enlists a bunch of other demon overlords. These include Red Magnus, a giant dude who’s extremely hotheaded and quick to jump to conclusions but also loyal to the death, Usalia, the orphaned bunny-eared daughter of the defeated king and queen of a rabbit-populated Netherworld, and Christo, a demon strategist who is suspiciously evasive about his background, claiming to be the overlord of a “certain giant Netherworld” (which the boneheaded Magnus mishears as a Netherworld named “Certain Giant” that must be populated by giants.) Rounding out the main cast is Zeroken, an annoyingly chatty kid who aspires to be a great martial artist and soon latches onto Killia as his “big bro” much to Killia’s irritation.

The crew all together, having a post-battle conference.

As our band of demon allies flies around the universe of Netherworlds, they begin to form a serious resistance to Void Dark’s empire. Void finally takes personal notice of these pests around the start of the mid-game and sends his two top generals, Bloodis and Majorita, to harass them. These two couldn’t look more different. Bloodis is a massively strong guy dressed in a full suit of armor who punches his opponents to death, while Majorita is just a kid, albeit a skilled necromancer who revives the corpses of her enemies to join her army in a horrific process she calls “kill and recycle.” These two pose the most serious threats to our cast of characters throughout most of the game.

Around the middle of the story, most of the characters’ big secrets and motivations for fighting are unfolded. They’re all seeking revenge of some kind: Seraphina for nearly being forced by her father into an arranged marriage with Void Dark because he’s too much of a coward to fight the guy, Magnus for the destruction of his Netherworld by the Lost Army, Usalia for Majorita killing her parents and turning them into enslaved zombie soldiers. Christo’s reasons for fighting are a bit different; there have been plenty of hints dropped by the mid-game that this sophisticated, learned demon overlord is really an angel in disguise pretending to be a demon to carry out surveillance, but he still has a bit of a personal grudge because he was temporarily booted from Celestia by his colleagues on suspicion of being Void’s spy.

Christo, just asking about what the team thinks about angels. He’s not an angel, though. No, just curious, that’s all.

The most serious dramatic material comes out of the story surrounding Zeroken and more critically Killia himself. Both were formerly students of Goldion, a famous warrior and martial artist. Zeroken is a defector from the Lost Army who treated Goldion’s wounds after the martial arts master was captured by Void and became his devoted follower. Killia was more of a formal student — not really a willing one, since he started his studies by getting soundly beaten by Goldion in combat back when Killia was the ruthless overlord of a Netherworld. Killia’s frequent flashbacks show that he really was quite an asshole back then, in contrast to the polite, considerate killing machine he is when we first meet him.

Yeah, that’s a lion tail she’s got too. Her father is full lion-man, so I have to guess this is a trait that passed down genetically.

It turns out that both his current kindness and sense of patience were instilled in him by Goldion and his daughter Liezerota, who more or less became Killia’s family. And then we remember that there’s this “Lieze” who Killia keeps mentioning and thinking about in asides, and it sounds from the context of these like she’s dead and he’s really upset about that. Well wouldn’t you know but Void Dark is the one who killed her. Not only that, but Void was Lieze’s brother and Goldion’s son, and he had a real hatred for this upstart punk Killia when he showed up at their house to study under his father. When Void finally loses his temper and attacks Killia, Lieze is in the way trying to make peace between them and ends up getting killed instead.

So now we’ve got the source of Killia’s hatred for Void — a very personal one. And it’s a strong impulse. Every so often during dialogue, time stops and we see Killia talking to himself in an aside, or rather to another version of himself, who tells Killia to “unleash” him, to stop holding him back. This shadowy version of Killia, apparently a part of his soul left over from when he was a terrible tyrant named Killidia, says a lot of ominous stuff about losing control and killing without restraint. The new, non-tyrannical Killia wants to avoid this because he’s afraid of accidentally hurting or killing his new allies and the residents of innocent worlds. But the impulse still seems to be strong.

As the endgame approaches, each of the characters in our main cast goes through a big self-revelation. Instead of giving in to their bitter feelings and desires for mere revenge, they realize that giving in to those feelings will only lead them to destruction. They instead come to trust in each other and band together as a sort of family. In doing so, the team decides to fight Void Dark not just to carry out their retribution but also to restore peace and begin the rebuilding process. Killia’s revelation is perhaps the most dramatic: in the third or fourth-to-last chapter, he has his final meeting with the “other” Killia, and instead of rejecting him as he has all this time, he accepts that other Killia as part of himself. Because he has now gained the ability to control himself, he can use all the old power he’s been suppressing without going berserk like he does in a couple of earlier chapters, which is nice.

Once all your characters have faced themselves and reached out to the truth all Persona 4 style, it’s time for them to come face to face with Void Dark. The crew have a final confrontation with Bloodis, and just as Killia and Zeroken suspected, he’s really Goldion, brainwashed by his own son to turn evil but brought to his senses by the pair during a previous battle, though he doesn’t tell them this until the very end in order to test their true strength. After their final fight, he concludes that they’re strong enough to defeat his “unworthy son” Void and then falls over dead, having sacrificed himself for just this purpose.

Here, in the game’s final act, we get to the bigger twist: that Liezerota is still alive, magically preserved by her brother Void, who’s been doing all this world-conquering just to suck enough power from them to bring her back to life. Void even sacrifices his remaining general, Majorita, after she’s defeated and left defenseless by the protagonist and company — Majorita, who mistakenly believed that Void was doing all this to create a utopia of peace for all demons under his rule, has her power stolen and is killed by her boss. She may have been powerful, but she wasn’t a very good judge of character.

Just before their final fight. For as much of an insane tyrant and a callous asshole as he is, Void still seems to care about his sister.

When the party breaks through his final defenses, Void is there at the top of his fortress waiting for them. After a typical final boss fight, though, Void asks his old adoptive brother/rival to help his sister before he dies. But of course, it won’t be that easy: there’s one more big fight in which his evil spirit possesses Lieze’s body and she has to be exorcised to get the good ending. And somehow, miraculously, the final absolute ultimate technique that Goldion taught Killia in their final fight works in expelling Void’s spirit from her and restoring Lieze to her normal alive self, just as Killia remembered her. Then the credits roll and there’s a “where are they now?” sequence describing the happy fates of all the rebel army crew before they inevitably get back together a few minutes later for the endless post-game grind.

Disgaea 5 is quite the ride. The main story takes us through a lot of up and downs. There’s death, destruction, and heartbreak, but also newly found friendship and even some love. D5 is pretty open about this part, in fact: the game doesn’t say it outright, but it’s implied that the feelings between Killia and Lieze aren’t just the familial kind of love. And in the good ending, the pair go back to their old home and seem to be about as close to married as most demons probably get, since they don’t seem too concerned with those kinds of legal formalities. This is a bit rough for Seraphina, who has obviously been pining after Killia for most of the game. She accepts the new situation pretty gracefully, though. Even when Lieze comes along with Killia to join the rest of the old rebel army crew in Seraphina’s base in the post-game.

And of course, some of the loose-ish ends left over after the end of the main story get tied up again in post-game story chapters that can be opened through the Dark Assembly, though you may have to beat the legislators up to get them to pass those bills. Fortunately, Disgaea 5 provides a cheat shop full of ways to manipulate your units’ growth and maps specially designed for powerleveling. Put on a podcast or something and get to it for a few hours and you should be okay.

No amount of powerleveling can help defuse this tension, though.

So that’s the story of Disgaea 5, or the bulk of it anyway. I found it hard to write about at first, and there’s still a lot I haven’t covered — each of its six-character central cast has their own side plots and dilemmas to work out. They all do happen to get worked out throughout the main story chapters as they fight alongside each other, contributing to the strong sense of camaraderie they have by the end. And without that, we wouldn’t get that classic tired old “power of friendship defeats evil” ending where Killia receives actual power from his companions he uses to beat the shit out of Void Dark.

I don’t really know how to feel about the ending, actually. On one hand, it all cleans up a little too nicely. It’s really convenient that Void just happened to have been keeping his sister in a perfectly preserved state so he could revive her, and also that Killia just happened to learn a technique from Goldion posing as Bloodis just before his death that could both defeat Void and then exorcise his soul from Lieze’s body without doing any harm to Lieze at all. It’s so damn convenient that it feels a little wrong. To be sure, that’s the best ending — there are less good endings in which Lieze and/or other characters don’t make it out alive.

However, you’re almost guaranteed to get this ending on your first playthrough, even if you have no idea what the necessary conditions for that ending are. Because to get a different, sadder ending, you need to have both 1) killed fifty allies in combat and 2) made the very obviously wrong decision to run away from the final battle against the possessed Lieze. And those probably aren’t conditions you’re going to fulfill by playing normally. Contrast this with Disgaea 1, which shuts you out of the best ending if you’ve so much as killed one ally during your playthrough. Accidentally killing one or two of your own units is surprisingly easy to do during a Disgaea playthrough; allies can easily get mixed up with enemies when you’re trying to wipe a map clean with wide-range attacks. Killing fifty allies, however, isn’t something you do by accident — not unless you play in a very reckless manner. Even then, the game will still let you choose the best ending if you want it. Feels a bit too generous, maybe.

But what the hell. They earned a happy ending, didn’t they?

On the other hand, I’m not sure I care too much. It’s admittedly very nice to not have to worry about avoiding ally kills, which is one of the only truly frustrating aspects of Disgaea 1, one that I’ve already complained about at length. And my first time around, I honestly expected that Lieze would end up dead or incapacitated somehow, so getting her back alive was both a pleasant and a genuine surprise. In any case, not everyone comes out of the story unscathed — Goldion is dead, and so are Usalia’s parents, and as far as I know there’s no way to get any of them back unless there’s some extra DLC or post-game stuff I haven’t seen.

There even might be some sympathy to show to the game’s villains, because they had understandable motives, though motives that made them do unspeakable things. Majorita was a war orphan who believed Void Dark wanted to create a utopia of peace controlled by an iron fist and obeyed him fanatically for that reason. And Void himself really just wanted to revive his sister, which is understandable. Never mind the fact that Lieze is a nice girl who disapproves of the mass murder and tyranny Void has committed for her sake. He didn’t think that far ahead, I guess.

In the end, though, while the villains are completely consumed and finally destroyed by their desires, our heroes manage to master theirs. They start out seeking revenge, but they end up finding each other and fighting for each other and for all their worlds. Even when they realize Christo is an angel, one of their natural enemies as demons, they just kind of pretend not to notice because he’s both an essential part of the crew and a friend.

Christo still wears those fake horns, though. You have to keep up appearances I guess.

This sort of stuff isn’t anything original as far as JRPG plots go, but it is nice to watch our protagonists grow as the story progresses. And it’s pretty heartwarming in parts. I know Disgaea is just supposed to be goofy and irreverent and all that, and it is, but as with Disgaea 1 there’s a bit more to it than some players might expect at first. In fact, the story to Disgaea 5 is really worthy of an old classical opera — it’s got all the necessary drama, conflict, betrayals, a love triangle, a few dirty jokes to mix things up, elaborate costumes, and a pretty operatic-sounding opening theme sung by Killia’s voice actor. If anyone reading this is planning on turning a PS4 strategy RPG into an opera, I think this is the one you should pick. I don’t need any compensation for the idea when it turns into a smash hit and revives the opera scene, though it would be nice.

One of several fights against Majorita. Not sure how you’d stage a scene like this, maybe use some strings to hang her from the ceiling.

Still, for me, the real appeal of Disgaea 5 isn’t so much in the story (I still think Disgaea 1 has the best plot and main cast; you can read all my rambling nonsense about that here) but in just how much entertaining content it throws at you. It provides a truly massive post-game section and a bunch of side features, some of which I got into in part 2 of this series. It also contains a ton of banter between characters from chapter to chapter that you can run through when you’re back at headquarters. Most of these are pretty light and comedic, some taking the form of skits involving the main cast, and they do a great job at breaking up the war drama plot you get when you play through the story maps. Granted, not every joke hits (Seraphina pulling her pistol out and non-lethally shooting Red Magnus and Zeroken for making fun of her gets old after the second or third time, and it happens about twenty million fucking times in this game) but a lot of them do, and even when they don’t, these characters have plenty of charm and chemistry anyway.

This one really takes more explaining than I care to do here

The Disgaea series looks like it might really be finished now, at least in the form we’ve known it. Publisher/developer Nippon Ichi Software is supposedly not doing well financially, Disgaea 5 came out five years ago, and there’s no hint of a Disgaea 6 beyond some talk and the outline of a basic plot. Fans are still holding out hope despite the troubles at NIS, though. I hope it isn’t the case, but at the very least if Disgaea 5 turns out to be the last Disgaea game, it would stand as proof that the series didn’t end because it ran out of creative steam. There are still a lot of great ideas here: fun, interesting characters, new gameplay mechanics, and enough extra content to occupy your time for weeks or months if you’re the addictive type. Considering the times we’re living in as I write this post, an addictive game that keeps you stuck indoors isn’t such a bad thing, is it?

In the spirit of Disgaea, then, I’d like to end this series of posts by throwing out some of the more weird/amusing stuff I came across while playing D5. You can consider this an appendix to this post, or sort of a post-game equivalent to it. A post-post? Never mind, I’ll just get on with it.

You have the option of wandering around Seraphina’s base from Chapter 1 on and talking to its residents in between battles. Some of them are just the generic grunt warriors and other units you recruit, but others are NPCs with set names and personalities who always hang around their same general areas so you can track them down easily. This Prinny is one of my favorites. He’s pretty much a lazy, useless load who wants nothing more than for the war to end so he can get wasted again. If I’m represented by any character in this game, it’s this guy. There’s a reason I use a Prinny as my avatar now after all.

These undead maids are pretty fun too. Not sure where the idea of a zombified maid came from, but they are devoted to their masters and mistresses despite not always being great at doing typical maid things. This particular one is Seraphina’s head maid. At the beginning of the game, she hates Killia because she suspects him of trying to put the moves on her mistress. By the end of the game, however, she seems to be falling in love with Killia herself. Better to just keep well away from her, really. He’s got Lieze anyway (see just below, she’s standing right there overhearing this weird conversation. Maybe that’s what the ! above her head is about.)

If you like demon catgirls better than zombie maids, you can talk to this nekomata, one of the many recruitable units that will be cluttering Seraphina’s pocket Netherworld by the end of the game. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way to take her up on this offer.

And hey, remember Etna from Disgaea 1? She, Flonne, and Laharl are back and also recruitable through one of the many DLC missions that come free with the Disgaea 5 Complete package, along with Laharl’s little sister Sicily from D1‘s direct sequel. And Etna is just as demanding as ever. Not sure I’d ever want her for a boss.

The Item World in Disgaea 5 is full of strange pocket dimensions to discover. Some are obviously helpful to the player, like hospitals and secret item shops selling rare products. Others are seemingly not helpful at all, like this carrot patch. If you don’t know what to do in a situation like this, you can either leave and continue playing through the Item World or keep talking to one of the NPCs until they get pissed off and start a fight. In this case “eat a carrot” means “let’s fight” I guess, because you end up fighting a squad of rabbit soldiers in this one. You do get a little bonus in your item’s stats for beating them, though.

Here’s another seemingly pointless level in the Item World: a bar. There is a special item you can get here, and of course you can also start a fight if you bother one of the NPCs in here enough. There’s also this succubus patron, but once again, there’s no way to take her up on her offer. Well, the game is rated T after all, so what do you expect.

But really, who needs that succubus when you can just spam Tera Heal? In addition to all its side attractions, Disgaea 5 features a lot of skills for characters to learn. Both generic and unique skills involve animation sequences that you’ll definitely want to turn off after a few battles because they make combat three times longer than it needs to be. However, some of them are really nice. Like the animation for Tera Heal, the most powerful generic healing spell in the game, in which your lucky warrior(s) get a visit from some kind of goddess of healing who patches up their wounds with the power of being huge and almost half-naked. Kind of reminds me of those Great Fairies from the Zelda games, though I like Tera Heal lady a lot better.

Okay, I’ll stop being a pervert for a few minutes and talk about something I like other than fanservice: music. If you talk to this moth guy back at headquarters, you can access a large library of data and info related to the game, including a music room. These have been a standard in Disgaea games for a long time. And this music room is worth visiting, because the soundtrack to D5 is really good. I’ve already posted a link to the game’s OP, but the regular stage and cutscene tracks are great as well, my favorite being the sort of Latin jazz-sounding Night Scoop. Tenpei Sato is an excellent composer, and I’m sorry I haven’t even mentioned his work up until now. Though I have to admit that I got really fucking sick of constantly hearing Moving On play in the background in the pocket Netherworld. It’s a nice, chilled-out relaxing sort of song, but it does get old, and it has vocals that are weirdly out of tune. Thankfully, you can replace it as the base song with any of the other tracks in the library.

Finally, here’s best girl Pleinair, fan favorite and the personal mascot of series character designer/artist Takehito Harada. She shows up in every Disgaea game, though she never has a role in the plot or even very much to say, assuming she says anything at all. She is recruitable, though, and she has some excellent skills. It’s to be expected, since she’s sort of the teacher’s pet (artist’s pet?) of the series.

***

And now my Disgaea post series is finally done, after three months and a lot of words. I hope I’ve done justice to one of my very favorite game series. I’m still not sure I really have as far as Disgaea 5 is concerned, but at some point you just have to publish what you’ve got. You can expect something completely different next time. Until then — I sometimes say “stay safe”, but I really mean it this time. Consider getting one of these Disgaea games and just play through the Item World until life returns to normal. 𒀭

Deep reads #2.3: The power of love (Disgaea 1)

Almost every time I’ve read a review of a game from the Disgaea series on one of the mainstream game review sites, I think the reviewer felt obligated to mention how crazy and over the top the story/characters/humor in the game are, either at or near the beginning of the review. As if to say “yeah, I know these ultra-powerful demons and angels look cartoonish and silly and all, I know” and almost apologizing for that before going on to mainly praise the game.  This doesn’t seem too different from the “guilty pleasure” disclaimers you’ll see people post at the beginning of reviews for works that are traditionally considered embarrassing to like too much.  I know I’ve seen people attach similar disclaimers to reviews of otherwise critically acclaimed movies, stuff put out by Marvel and the like.  Hell, I know for a fact I’ve done this myself with a few games right here on this site.

So you’d be justified in calling me a hypocrite if I say that I don’t like seeing these disclaimers, simply upon the principle that if you like something, you should like it without shame (that’s a belief it took me a while to finally reach, but I have.)1  That’s especially true of the Disgaea series for me.  Because under all the slapstick antics, the the over-the-top expressions, and the planet-destroying sword and magic attacks, the Disgaea games have substance and a real heart to them.  And while the series would make a lot of mechanical upgrades throughout its decade-plus run, the best example of this heart is still in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, the PS2 original, and its several ports and remasters.  (Actual disclaimer: All the screenshots here are from Disgaea 1 Complete, the PS4 remaster, but it’s essentially the same game for story/character purposes at least.  Also, I don’t feel like digging my PS2 out of the box it’s in.  I’m moving again soon, you know how it is.)

Also: massive spoilers ahead.  I spoil the whole damn plot to this game below, so fair warning as usual.

Fighting a dragon in the tundra, just another day in the Netherworld

In my first post in this series, I covered how ridiculous and wacky the characters and stories in Disgaea can feel, at least at first. That tradition started with Disgaea 1.  The game opens with a text crawl and narration explaining that the Overlord of the Netherworld, King Krichevskoy, has died, leaving his only child Laharl the heir to his throne.  Laharl, however, went for a nap two years ago and hasn’t woken up since.  In the course of his sleep, the Netherworld has gone to hell, with petty demon lords rising up and taking control of their own pieces of it.  This is where Disgaea 1 begins: with Etna, one of Laharl’s few remaining loyal vassals, trying to wake him up by hitting him in the face with various weapons and power tools.  Finally, when she’s about to try shooting him, Laharl wakes up and wonders what the hell all the noise is about and why Etna is pointing a gun at his head.  Maybe we should call Etna questionably loyal.

Not trying to kill you, I promise

Once Laharl learns that his father is dead, he immediately declares himself the new overlord by right of birth and sets off to rule over his realm.  Except it’s been without a ruler for two years, and vassals who were formerly loyal to Laharl’s dad because of his strength and influence don’t have any regard for his kid.  So Laharl decides that he’ll need to beat some sense into his subjects to get them back into line. The only help he’ll have with that at first is Etna and her squad of Prinnies, a set of penguin-esque monster characters that contain the souls of sinful humans put to work in the Netherworld until they can pay off their moral debt balance and reincarnate.

One of Laharl’s vassals giving him valuable advice.  I wish I could tell you we get to take this talking dragon with us to battle, but these lazy NPCs just hang around the castle all day while we do the fighting.

Unfortunately, the Prinnies aren’t terribly useful at first.  Being monster characters, they can’t equip regular weapons like swords and spears, and they’re not especially impressive in any one stat.  As Laharl starts to plunder the estates of nearby petty demon lords, however, he makes money that he can use to recruit new demons into his army, including a growing set of specialized character types like Mages, Archers, Thieves, Ninjas, and Healers, each with their own special sets of skills and weapon proficiencies.

Just as there’s a Netherworld populated by demons, there’s a heaven-like land called Celestia populated by angels.  And at around the same time Laharl begins his quest to consolidate power, the head of the angels, Seraph Lamington, decides to send one of his trainee angels down to the Netherworld to assassinate King Krichevskoy.

Pictured: probably not your ideal candidate for the open assassin position.

Wait, what?  Yes.  At first, it might seem that Celestia has some bad intel, but we eventually come to learn that Lamington has some ulterior motives and is sending Flonne down to this hellish land for another purpose entirely that he isn’t telling her about.  Because 1) he already knows Krichevskoy is dead, and 2) from the one scene we’ve seen her in at this point, Flonne comes off as the exact opposite type you’d want to carry out an assassination: cheerful, kind, and a little naive.  This is made clear shortly afterward when Flonne somehow makes it down to the Netherworld, arrives at Laharl’s castle, accidentally runs into him while doing her best ninja impression… and politely introduces herself as an assassin.

Flonne then remembers she’s on a secret mission and runs away, but not before deliberately bowing and saying goodbye, seemingly not realizing who she’d been talking to. Laharl is so flustered by what the hell just happened that she gets the start on him; however, despite her ninja skills and serious magic abilities, an angel like her can’t get far in the Netherworld. Laharl and Etna fight through a bunch of angelic monster summons, finally manage to corner and capture Flonne, and find out what she’s up to.  But when Laharl tells Flonne that the old Overlord, his father, is already dead, Flonne bursts into tears.

This understandably weirds Laharl the fuck out considering the fact that he’s talking to his dad’s intended assassin. Flonne asks Laharl why he doesn’t seem sad about his father’s death, and he replies that it’s only natural, because love isn’t something demons feel. She can’t bring herself to believe this, however, and decides to join Laharl and Etna for a while to discover whether the Netherworld’s demons truly can’t feel love. Laharl lets her tag along, reasoning that he’ll have fun shocking her with the kinds of horrors she’d never witness in Celestia.  Meanwhile, Etna wonders out loud what the hell Laharl is thinking by letting an angel into his court.

The mid-game follows this trio as they work to claim the overlordship of the Netherworld for Laharl. Along the way, they run into a lot of other strange characters, including a money-loving pig demon, a Dracula-esque vampire lord, a team of ineffective, understaffed Power Ranger/Super Sentai ripoffs, and a Buck Rogers 50’s serial-style dashing hero from Earth.  The crew must defeat all these characters and more in battle, and in many cases these defeated enemies are converted into allies and join Laharl’s party, often completely without his consent.

Laharl’s vassals gather to take him down. Thankfully, these ones are just a bunch of basic grunts.

By the game’s final act, Laharl has defeated his demonic foes and claimed his throne, but he and his crew then have to ward off a joint human/angel invasion of the Netherworld led by General Turner, the military ruler of Earth, and Seraph Lamington’s hotheaded lieutenant Archangel Vulcanus.  At the end of this war, assuming the player achieves the best ending, Laharl establishes himself as the new overlord, and everyone is happy except for the assholes who instigated the Netherworld invasion in the first place.

Assholes like Vulcanus, here trying out for the role of YHVH in the next Shin Megami Tensei game.

So maybe you’re thinking sure, that sounds kind of silly.  And it is in parts.  Disgaea 1 features plenty of buffoonish characters, slapstick antics, and dirty jokes.  However, buried under the surface is a story about coming of age and coping with loss — about a kid who rejects the concept of love not because he’s a demon, but because it’s the only way he thinks he can deal with losing the person closest to him.

The first hint of this seriousness comes when Laharl has to decide how to handle one of his father’s old vassals, the money-grubbing Hoggmeiser, a pig demon who “says” dollar signs at the end of his sentences in the same way some characters end theirs with hearts. Laharl is all set to kill this disloyal vassal, but when Hoggmeiser’s young son stands between them and refuses to move, the prince decides to let his enemy off the hook.  He even leaves the family enough money to get by without starving. Laharl still loots most of Hoggmeiser’s stuff, but this act of mercy is enough to give Flonne hope that Laharl does have some love in him.

I know I’ve used this screenshot before, but it sums up Etna so well

A few chapters later, Etna intentionally leads Laharl into a trap set by another one of his dad’s former vassals, the above-mentioned Dracula-esque demon lord Maderas.2  Not for no reason, either: Maderas is blackmailing Etna in exchange for the return of her memories that he somehow stole from her, straight out of her brain. In true villain fashion, Maderas decides to have the whole lot of them killed once has has them surrounded, including Etna.  But Etna has already outsmarted him by paying off the Prinnies he sent to spy on her, and the team wipes the floor with him and his demons (assuming you beat them in a boss fight, of course — these parts are entirely up to the player’s skill.)

After the fight, Laharl naturally asks Etna what the hell she’s about. Etna admits that she betrayed Laharl at first, but says she really intended to use Laharl as bait to get back at and defeat Maderas, which is supposed to make her original betrayal okay somehow. Anyone would expect this self-proclaimed Overlord of the Netherworld to show no mercy in a case like this.  However, after freaking out at Etna a bit, Laharl laughs it off, saying he would expect no less of such a devious demon.  Flonne is surprised to see this mercy on Laharl’s part and decides that demons might have love for each other they show in ways other beings don’t.  Laharl clearly feels some kind of bond with Etna — not one of love in the way we’d normally understand it, but there’s some kind of affection there even if Laharl would never admit to or even recognize it.

This is where things start to get a bit heavy

Even the sarcastic, cynical Etna seems to genuinely care for Laharl in her own way.  Despite being his vassal, she treats him like a kid, albeit one she cares about, a bit like an older sister might a younger brother.  This semi-sibling relationship is strengthened by the fact that Laharl’s father took Etna in as an orphan.  She has a lot of reverence for Krichevskoy, going so far as to ask Laharl if she can steal a portrait of his father from the wall of one of his other vassals to keep for herself.  While she does go hard on Laharl most of the time, she also says she’d like him to become the kind of ruler his father was — powerful but fair-minded.  She also says she’ll kill him and take his place as Overlord if he fails to do so, and the game gives us no reason not to believe her.  But there’s still a kind of caring there.

This brings us to Vyers.  This guy is initially presented as a joke character, an extremely vain upstart demon lord who has nicknamed himself the “Dark Adonis.”  Vyers is the very first enemy that Laharl pursues, mostly for the purpose of getting some loot to build his army up.  He puts on a lot of airs when they meet face to face, but Laharl and Etna aren’t impressed and give Vyers a different name that they think suits his character better.  Since he’s not even important enough to be a final boss, they call him “Mid-Boss”, and in the first of many, many meta-jokes in the series, Vyers’ name in the game’s dialogue box (and his profile, stats page, and everywhere else) immediately changes to “Mid-Boss.”

Mid-Boss after taking yet another beating from Laharl and company

Mid-Boss refuses to leave the party alone, showing up a few more times throughout the game to challenge Laharl and his vassals to a fight.  However, despite appearances, he isn’t just some buffoonish fop who keeps annoying Laharl for no reason.  Now and then, the game cuts away from the Netherworld to see how things are playing out in Celestia between the serene Lamington and his eternally pissed-off and aggressive subordinate Vulcanus.  When Vulcanus isn’t around, Lamington has private conversations with a hidden figure who happens to sound a lot like Mid-Boss.  Players who are paying attention the few times Krichevskoy’s portrait comes up on screen might also notice a resemblance between him and Mid-Boss.  The game doesn’t spell it out until the late game, but it’s heavily implied by the end that Mid-Boss is Laharl’s father in disguise, revived for a short time by Lamington so he can watch over his son long enough to ensure he’ll be all right on his own.

Laharl’s long-deceased mother is also present and watching over him, though again, the game doesn’t hint at this fact for a while.  There’s one Prinny in Etna’s squad of servants that’s different from the rest in almost every way: demeanor, voice, style of speech, and even color.  All the other Prinnies we meet are lazy and prone to partying and getting drunk when they’re not on the job, and they use that now-iconic “dood” interjection at the ends of almost all their sentences.  By contrast, this “Big Sis Prinny” is diligent and responsible, and she seems to have to consciously remind herself to add in that “dood” interjection.3  She even helps Flonne out early on during her stay in the Netherworld by giving her a potion to help her survive the hellish environment.  As Etna points out, the Prinnies in the Netherworld generally house the souls of the worse sort of sinners and so aren’t usually inclined to be too helpful to others, but we already know Big Sis Prinny is different from her colleagues.

Just as planned?

If you’re used to these kinds of twists, you might have predicted that this unusual Prinny carries the soul of Laharl’s mother.  Laharl only discovers this Prinny’s true identity in his efforts to stop some of the Prinnies working in his castle from reincarnating and leaving his service without his permission.  Laharl and his crew pursue them and even fight a group of death-god demons to prevent them from being sent to their next lives.  After beating them, however, Laharl is persuaded to let them go by Big Sis Prinny, who’s also in line for reincarnation.  This particular Prinny, it turns out, was sent to the Netherworld as a punishment for suicide.

At this point, it becomes clear that she’s Laharl’s mother, though she doesn’t come out and say it directly.  A few chapters earlier, Etna related to Flonne the story of how Laharl suffered from a terminal disease when he was a child.  No doctor could cure him, but the Queen knew of a sure way to save him: by sacrificing the life of someone who loved him, he could recover.  She therefore took her own life to save his.  The cure worked, but at an obviously great price, both to Laharl and his father.  It’s implied, then, that this is why Laharl is so down on love — he blames love for his mother’s death.  Of course, there’s a massive irony here: in saying that he doesn’t believe in love because it took her from him, Laharl is admitting that he loved his mother.  Otherwise, he naturally would not have cared about her dying to save him.

To the game’s credit, it doesn’t take this chance to write in a tearful, heart-string-pulling reunion.  Laharl’s mother says she has no right to face her son after everything that’s happened.  She only asks Flonne and Etna to take care of Laharl before her soul is transported, leaving the empty shell of her Prinny form crumpled on the ground.  Laharl, meanwhile, seems to have quietly absorbed all this and tells his crew that they’re headed back to his castle, leaving the rest of the Prinnies to reincarnate in peace.

Laharl’s arc comes to an end in the final chapter, when he and his vassals are about to face up against that allied human/angel invasion force.  In the course of helping to defeat both the massive spacecraft fleet of General Turner and the angelic forces of the archangel Vulcanus, Flonne ends up injuring humans and fellow angels — two of the most serious sins an angel can commit.  And when Flonne decides to go back to Celestia to seek out Lamington and ask him about the invasion, Laharl, Etna, and their crew of newly conquered human allies come along, resulting in her leading a sort of informal counter-invasion.  Not that Flonne intended for it to be taken that way, but she’s not given the warmest welcome when she returns home.

I could write a separate post about how angels are usually arrogant assholes in JRPGs and how that contrasts with the view we have of them in the West.

So our heroes are required to fight a bunch of battles once again on their way to meet the Seraph.  When they finally reach Lamington and find Vulcanus at his side, Flonne explains herself to him and delivers her account of the Netherworld’s invasion.  Lamington realizes Vulcanus has been conniving behind his back all this time trying to purposely start a war between their two worlds, and he fucks his disloyal lieutenant up by turning him into a flower.  However, Lamington also tells Flonne that she must be punished for her own sins and turns her into a flower as well — if not exactly killing her, then putting an end to her existence as a sentient being.

Despite his insistence throughout almost the entire game that he doesn’t care about Flonne and finds her completely irritating, Laharl completely loses it at this point and proclaims that he will kill the Seraph for what he’s done.

Yeah, the fun’s over now

What happens next depends upon the ending you’re locked into. In the course of the final fight with Lamington (PROTIP: you should have a thief in your party to steal his equipped item Testament; it’s good) Laharl gets the upper hand and defeats the Seraph. However, despite his anger, Laharl concludes that killing Lamington won’t help bring back Flonne. He instead prepares to give his own life to revive her, repeating the sacrifice his own mother performed to save his life when he was a child.

If you’ve achieved the best ending, Mid-Boss shows up at this point to stop Laharl. He explains that he and Lamington had been secretly working together to make peace between Celestia and the Netherworld by sending Flonne down as a sort of envoy in disguise.  Apparently direct negotiations would not have worked, so this backdoor approach had to be taken instead.  Even Flonne had no idea that this was her true role — her natural kindness more or less acted on its own, something that Lamington had been counting on.

Mid-Boss then tells Laharl his self-sacrifice isn’t necessary and revives Flonne himself, but not as an angel. Flonne instead returns as a fallen angel, a special class of demon. He says this was Flonne’s true punishment for fighting against humans and angels.  Not that it seems like much of a punishment.  Flonne ends up looking a little demonic, with a pair of bat wings, a tail, those pointy demon ears, and red eyes instead of blue.  Otherwise, she’s exactly the same old Flonne as she was before.  Mainly because she still doesn’t shut up about love and kindness, much to Laharl’s current and future annoyance.

I like the new look better myself

Lamington, despite being passed out for most of this final scene, is all right, and when he gets up he makes a peace deal with Laharl, just the thing that he and Laharl’s father had been planning for behind the scenes.  Laharl’s father, meanwhile, uses up the rest of his borrowed reincarnation power and finally disappears, joining his wife in the afterlife.  And Laharl and Etna return to the Netherworld along with Flonne, who’s now a permanent resident at Laharl’s castle.  Laharl establishes himself as Overlord, Flonne continues to try to teach demons about love with probably very mixed results, and Etna does… whatever it is Etna does.

Part of it probably involves her making fun of Laharl for acting like he doesn’t care about Flonne, as in this scene where she’s doing a mocking imitation of him (it works better if you’re listening to the voice-over.)

So despite how it looks on the surface, Disgaea 1 does have some pretty heavy emotional moments, with Laharl coming to terms with the death of his mother and nearly sacrificing himself for Flonne’s sake.  It’s easy to imagine how a different game might play up the melodrama, but Disgaea does a good job at keeping it measured, even when Laharl is going berserk near the very end of the game.  It’s only when Flonne is turned into a flower that Laharl loses control in that dramatic scene, but by this point the drama is earned because their relationship has been pretty well established.  Even if Laharl still won’t admit it, it’s pretty obvious well before this point that he cares about Flonne, even with all her irritating talk about love.

And when Captain Gordon, Jennifer, and their retro-sci-fi robot Thursday are thrown into the mix and fight/make friends with/join Laharl’s party, they don’t take away at all from this aspect of the story even though they’re coming in straight from a 50s sci-fi serial, a style that you wouldn’t think would mesh at all with the game up until that point. Gordon is a buffoon of a space captain sent by General Turner to the Netherworld as an unwitting tool to open the way for an invasion from Earth — he’s sort of a Zap Brannigan from Futurama, only a lot more noble and less of a selfish jerk, standing against Turner when his true intentions are revealed.  In fact, his far smarter and more competent assistant Jennifer has her own drama dealing with the fact that General Turner, her adoptive father, is an asshole who only cares about using her for her genius mind.  (The fact that Jennifer always wears a bikini and nothing else isn’t even a distraction from this dramatic character development.  Okay, maybe just slightly, but not too much.)

I think Jennifer is probably a reference to an old sci-fi serial character too, but I have no idea.  Maybe Nippon Ichi just wanted a busty blonde somewhere in their game.

Disgaea 1 also tries to incorporate its gameplay mechanics into the plot.  As you play through the regular missions and move the story along, you may very well accidentally kill an ally.  This is surprisingly easy to do, especially once you start to unlock attacks with wide areas of effect, and it’s all the more likely to occur if you take breaks from the main game to dive into the Item World.  At first, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  A unit that gets knocked down to 0 HP during a battle isn’t killed forever, after all — all it takes to bring it back is the right price paid to the Netherworld Hospital.

However, killing even one ally means that you lock yourself out of the best ending, in which both Laharl and Flonne survive unscathed.  The ally kill count can be tracked by checking the game stats with the male healer standing in one of the corners of Laharl’s castle, but it can only be reset by starting a new game cycle.  There are thankfully ways to do this without playing through and completing the game’s final chapter, but most players will likely do exactly that and be left with a bittersweet ending on their first playthrough in which Laharl goes through with his sacrifice and revives Flonne, ending his own life in the process (well sort of — as we’ve seen, death isn’t a totally permanent state in the world of Disgaea, and this ending concludes with Flonne and Etna talking about a new Prinny at the castle who has antennae sticking out of his head that look just like Laharl’s.)  Other, significantly harsher endings can be achieved by really going nuts and killing loads of your allies early on in the game.

I do like the fact that there are multiple endings to Disgaea 1.  It fits well with the game’s central themes of love and sacrifice that Laharl is made to actually carry his sacrifice out in one of the more common endings.  The one-ally-death mechanic is a little harsh, though.  Even when you’re actively trying to avoid causing ally kills, one or two always seem to occur in the course of a typical game.  It’s easy to remedy the situation by saving often, cycling those saves, and checking the ally kill count with that male healer NPC on a regular basis, but this does add some extra work to the game that some players might get frustrated with.

No, I’m not mistaken, this is indeed the male healer

And I wouldn’t really be able to blame them.  Later games in the series eased up on this criterion for getting the best ending, requiring an ally kill count that would take serious negligence or total callousness towards ally units on the player’s part to achieve.  This works better in a thematic sense as well — if the idea was that Laharl could only achieve the best ending for himself by proving himself a good ruler and not harming any of his allies, it seems unreasonable to punish him for screwing up a single time.  It doesn’t even have to be Laharl who screws up, in fact.  Even if he’s is killed by one of his allies, the player is locked out of the best ending.

Still, this effort to link the player’s in-game conduct to the ending is admirable.  It’s not exactly innovative; plot-driven RPGs and visual novels had been doing it for a long time by this point, but usually by way of more straightforward player choice through branching dialogue options or decisions to be made at key points.  The bad endings of Disgaea 1, by contrast, are generally unexpected and really hit you in the face as a consequence when they happen.  The game is essentially set up to lock you out of the best ending your first play through, since killing allied characters seems so consequence-free at first.  So unless you’re using a guide to play, it’s more than likely you’ll rub out a few of your allies by accident and think nothing of it.

Linking this game mechanic to the ending you get also might serve to show that the love Flonne keeps going on about isn’t strictly familial love, the kind that Laharl claims he never felt for his father.  The love she talks about is a broader kind, including the bonds between friends, and even the bonds that should exist (but rarely do) between a boss and his subordinates.  Even the extremely unromantic Etna pushes Laharl to show this kind of love to his subjects so that, rather than ruling over them through brute force, he can gain their respect the way his father did.  Realizing this kind of love exists within him is part of Laharl’s arc throughout the game, to the point that by the end of the game he manages to show mercy even to a mortal enemy.

And of course there’s an element of romantic love in Disgaea 1 as well, namely between Laharl’s parents.  Because both these characters are technically sort of dead at this point, all of this romance occurs before the events of the game, but there are some hints dropped throughout that suggest Laharl’s father and mother were very much in love.  You might even read an implied future relationship into whatever it is Laharl and Flonne have going, since they pretty much shack up together at the end of the game.  Well, so does Etna, but I can’t see Etna settling down with anyone.  Anyone who tried getting with her would most likely end up on the wrong end of her spear.

If you’re looking for a game that places the main characters into a straightforward romance, check out Disgaea 2. No, not involving the talking frog, but rather the human warrior Adell here and the demon princess Rozalin on the right. There’s a bit of that commoner/nobility romance novel appeal in this game too. An old angle, but it still works.

While this emphasis on the power of love works as a theme, I think the storytelling in Disgaea 1 ultimately succeeds because it implements that theme in an interesting and effective way.  In a typical JRPG, you’d play as the hero, probably a human, entering a Netherworld to fight its demon overlord, and you’d probably end up drawing from your friendships and the power of love in that sense to gain the strength to defeat him.  In Disgaea 1, by contrast, you’re playing as the demon overlord and fighting/recruiting the heroes sent to vanquish you.  This in itself is turning the usual RPG setup on its head, but it does so still again by depicting the demon overlord and his minions as not typically evil.  They think they’re supposed to be uncaring and unloving and try their best to act that way, but the game slowly reveals that these demons are a lot more complicated than even they realize.  Meanwhile, while Lamington and Flonne talk about love and peace and all that good stuff, most of the angels we meet in Disgaea 1 are almost robotic in their obedience to Vulcanus, who even the top demons of the Netherworld think is an evil bastard.

By the end of the game, both demons and angels come off as a mixed bunch — driven by the same emotions of love, caring, greed, and ambition.  They really just come off as overpowered, more extreme versions of humans.  Maybe that’s the main gist of the game: that despite our preconceived notions about what we’re “supposed” to be, we’re not all that different from each other.

In the end, maybe Disgaea is just another JRPG about how the power of friendship defeats evil. But it does so in a unique and interesting way, and that’s why I like it. 𒀭

***

If you were wondering why it took so long for me to post this, I guess it’s pretty obvious by now.  I try not to make these too long, but the show/game-specific deep dives that get into plot specifics are hard to edit down too much.  And I’ve still got one more to go.  Next time, we’ll finish out the series with a look at Disgaea 5, seeing how the series evolved over twelve years and examining some of the weird quirks that make that game unique in its own right.  Until then.

=

1 Here’s a meta question for you: was this opening itself the kind of disclaimer I was just saying I didn’t like?  Am I still a hypocrite?  Think about it.

2 I don’t know the English-language voice actor who plays Maderas, but he does a good Bela Lugosi impression.

3 After all this time playing Disgaea games, I still don’t know where “dood” came from.  I think it was the localization team’s best attempt at translating the Japanese sentence-ender the Prinnies use, which is something like -ssu.  It might be related to “ossu”, which is a very casual greeting that fits with the Prinnies’ kind of sloppy, lazy attitudes.

Deep reads #2.2: Nippon Ichi’s Netherworld Vacation

Today we return to the Disgaea retrospective series.  But didn’t I promise to start getting into specific games by now?  Why am I hanging around a hot springs instead like a lazy asshole, writing an entirely different kind of post?

It’s because I felt I should more deeply explore some of the gameplay elements that make the series so uniquely appealing to obsessive-compulsives like me, which involves looking into the many distracting extra features of Disgaea.  It also seems appropriate to explore these before getting more in-depth with the story and character elements and how they mesh with gameplay and game structure.  I encourage the reader to think of this as less of a delay and more of a bonus, anyway, since this is all extra material. But just like the extra material in the Disgaea games, it’s all good fun.  (Or, well, you’ll be the judge of that instead.  Both in terms of how much fun these games seem to you and how good or bad my writing is.  I hope you like way too many parentheticals containing stupid, rambling tangents.  But if you didn’t, I’m sure you’d have stopped reading this site a long time ago.)

The main hub of Laharl’s castle in Disgaea 1 Complete.

Once again, we start at the beginning with Disgaea 1, here represented in its remastered Disgaea 1 Complete PS4 version as before.  Even in its original form, the first Disgaea had more to offer than its story-based maps.  We’ve already briefly been over the potentially infinite Item World grind, which opens up to the player shortly after the game begins.  It’s not quite right to call the Item World optional, though; the game does require you to complete at least ten levels in one item to progress past a certain point.  This is simple to do, but it also acts as a hook to reel the player into more and more Item World adventures.

Flonne gets the MVP title with the killing blow on the very first Item King taken out.

This is the Item World in its most basic form of the series, but it still contains those essential elements that make it fun to play.  The size, enemy layout, and geography of these maps are pretty widely variable, sometimes defying gravity and logic, so you really don’t know what you’ll get next as you clear each one.

Occasionally you’ll see a map like this, but they are definitely the exception. I gave this poor lone mushroom demon a break and walked to the exit panel.

While this randomization makes the Item World more interesting and dynamic, I found the real addictive hook in the maps’ Geo Panel puzzles.  These are colored panels on the game board that can create various effects, both good and bad, on any unit standing on them depending upon the colored pyramid-shaped Geo Symbol controlling them.  On the story maps, these Geo Panels and Symbols are often set up specifically to give the player a challenge — for example, by making it impossible to enter a certain key area without running through a gauntlet of enemies, or by pumping up the enemies’ attack and defense in one area of the map.  In the Item World, by contrast, the Geo Panels and Symbols are placed randomly just like the enemies are.  This can make some maps very difficult to quickly complete through clearing out all the enemy units, especially if that damn Invincibility effect is active.

These effects and panels can also provide the player with fabulous prizes, however.  When a Geo Symbol is destroyed on a Geo Panel of a different color than the Symbol, it will set off a chain reaction, changing each Panel of that color to the destroyed Symbol’s color.  This reaction also destroys every other Symbol in the affected area, which causes the reaction to repeat in the color of each destroyed Symbol.  The mechanics of it can be a bit confusing depending upon the layout of the map, but setting off a long chain of reactions is worth it because it means your bonus gauge shoots up, getting you money, EXP, and potentially rare items if you clear the map.  I find it’s also extremely satisfying to score that massive reaction.  Maybe it’s all the changing colors and sounds and lights going off triggering something in that old lizard part of my brain, the way a slot machine works.

A geo chain reaction going off.

If none of the above Item World stuff interests you, though, it’s no problem: the game has more to offer, most of it waiting to be unlocked in the Dark Assembly.  Laharl might call himself the Overlord of the Netherworld, but his power isn’t absolute.  He still has to deal with this parliament of demons and monsters to do things like stock the stores with higher-quality items.  And if you want Laharl to invade Earth or take on any of the post-game bosses, you have to get the Dark Assembly’s approval by sponsoring a bill in the Assembly to put up to a vote.  The many post-game and extra maps that can be unlocked through the Dark Assembly give the player a reason to spend time powerleveling Laharl and company — the most powerful boss in the game sits at level 6,000.

Good luck passing this bill.  Just as in real life, it’s hard to get money out of legislators, especially when you have no real reason to do it other than wanting more money.

Sometimes the Assembly passes these bills easily, with little or no opposition.  However, bills that become available later in the game often meet with stiff resistance.  It costs mana to present a bill to the Assembly, mana that can typically only be gained through fighting and killing enemies, and if a bill is voted down that mana is lost (unless you cheat by doing a lot of saving and resetting, of course.)  So what’s to be done?  You can accept your defeat and give up — mana is easily recovered through combat, so it’s no big deal to lose a bit.  You can also present the bill again and try to butter up the senators by bribing them with items out of your inventory.  Or you can bend the Assembly to your will by beating them into submission in a battle upon the failure of the bill.  The Dark Assembly itself can therefore become a boss if the player really wants to make it one.

Every Disgaea has its own version of the Dark Assembly. Pictured here, the Strategy Assembly in Disgaea 5. You know you can bribe Sen. Corrupt without her raising any ethics complaints.

So Disgaea 1 is already pretty loaded up with content to distract you from the main story for a while.  However, later games in the series continued to pile more features on, eventually resulting 12 years later in the massive clusterfuck that is Disgaea 5.

Well, I just called Disgaea 5 a clusterfuck, but I meant that in an entirely positive way.  I really like the latest entry in the Disgaea series, but there’s no denying the fact that it has a lot of extra features crammed into it, enough to distract you from the main story so much you might damn near forget the game had a main story to begin with.

An optional surprise Item World boss that I am avoiding because like hell I can beat him at my level.

Firstly, there’s the Item World, back and full of extra features: insanely difficult optional boss fights, chances to level the item more quickly by destroying or lifting certain objects on the map before clearing it, and bonus rooms between Item World stages that offer all kinds of crazy shit for lack of a better term.  Even more optional boss fights, secret shops, hospitals, frustratingly difficult jumping puzzle mazes filled with treasure chests, a room full of cloned versions of your own units that you can fight, another room filled to the brim with enemy Prinnies, the hot springs pictured at the top of the page, and more.  And of course the same Geo Effect system that was introduced in Disgaea 1.  The Item World of Disgaea 5 is practically a separate game in itself.

Killia, the protagonist of Disgaea 5, after failing the jumping puzzle maze room in one of D5’s Item Worlds. It’s not his fault, it’s mine. Thankfully, there’s an exit back to the Item World proper down here.

A few of the Item World bonus rooms even offer the player a chance to gamble.  The hot springs room, for example, lets you soak in the springs, resulting in a number of either positive or negative outcomes leading into the next room: you might start with a full bonus gauge, or you might start with restored or drained HP and SP.  Far more potentially infuriating, however, is the fortune-telling room.  This is a wooden ship with a foxy lady fortune teller (this isn’t me just referencing Jimi Hendrix for no reason — she’s a literal fox woman, one of the Nine-Tails monster-type demons you can recruit) who can give you anything from a great fortune to a lousy fortune, affecting the level of the item accordingly.  So if you get the worst fortune, the item you’re working on can lose something like five levels, which may well be the number of levels you had to work up through to get to the fucking fortune teller in the first place.*  There’s nothing quite so infuriating, at least when you’re playing through the Item World.

It makes me mad enough to want to rob a bank, which is also something you can do in the Disgaea 5 Item World.

But the new Item World is only the beginning.  Disgaea 5 both carries over features from previous sequels to the original and adds its own.  Among those carried over are the request board, where you can take on jobs both easy and difficult for rewards of money, equipment, and items.

At least they’re honest about their dishonesty.

There’s also Chara World, a board game-style challenge playable by any single unit in your company that includes still more fabulous prizes and the opportunity for greater growth if the unit reaches the end goal in time.  And the research center, where you can send squads of your units to distant planets to plunder them, capture residents as POWs, and unlock yet more boss fights.  And when you get your POWs from these distant planets, what else should you do but interrogate them?  The game thoughtfully provides an Interrogation Room option to turn enemy demons over to your side through coercion.

No real surprise that demons don’t have their own Geneva Conventions to keep them in line.

There are several other features in the game to sidetrack you, to the point that the hub world of Disgaea 5 feels more like a casino than the wartime base of operations it actually is.  You and your demonic friends can put the war they’re fighting on hold for an eternity if you feel like it and go on a vacation of gambling, gaming, and rampaging.

And who are you taking along on your vacation?  Just about whoever you feel like.  Disgaea 1 was hardly lacking in units to recruit, but newer games added even more options.

The unit recruitment screen in Disgaea 3. The Archer unit is one of my favorites throughout the series. Sorry for robbing that bank earlier, Archer.

I usually get a lot of use out of the story character units in these games, since some of them are naturally the first you use in battle and have some good unique skills.  However, it’s a bit hard to get by just using them.  Far from impossible, certainly, but the games offer a wide variety of generic units ordered by class that can be recruited early on.  There are a whole lot of them, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, weapon proficiencies, growth stats, and special skills.  Each class also has up to five advanced unit types with higher starting stats and better proficiencies and resistances that unlock as you level the more basic units.  And the same is true of just about every monster unit you’ll encounter as an enemy — they can pretty much all be recruited as well, the only real differences being that they can only equip their own special sets of monster weapons and can’t pick up and throw other units.

Yes, this is a real attack skill you can use in a Disgaea game.  It still got a T rating, too.  Maybe the ESRB isn’t as uptight as I thought?

So you can pretty much throw together any composition of units you like.  If you want to put a sensibly balanced force into the field with tanky, close-combat units in the front and long-range attackers and mages in the back lines, you can do that.  If you want to raise a brigade exclusively made of ultra-powerful mages who can bomb the shit out of everything on the map before the enemies get within ten panels of them, you can do that.  If you want to give those mages swords, axes, and spears instead and command them to charge the enemy head on, the game won’t stop you from trying out such a foolish strategy.  And if you want to field an army made entirely of pole-dancing succubi like the one above — that might take a bit longer, but it’s potentially feasible, and I salute you if that’s your plan.

Again, Disgaea 5 takes all this one step further.  Not only can you recruit dozens upon dozens of humanoid and monster characters, but the game lets you choose from three different personalities for each, which come along with different voice samples during battle and unique responses when you talk to them while roaming around the central hub world.

This mage has us all figured out.

It could perhaps be argued that all these extra features and games-within-games are a bit too much content shoved into a single game, especially considering just how much they can distract from the main story missions.  There are a bunch of additional elements here I didn’t even bring up, not to mention all the extras also present in Disgaea 2, 3, and 4.  There are some Item World events that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, and I know for a fact there are post-game bosses in some of the Disgaea titles that I’ve never even tried to take on.

I don’t see any of that as a problem, however.  How can I complain about extra content for the same price?  And it is extra, after all: aside from one required dive into the Item World and the completion of a couple of request board missions, it’s usually entirely optional.  You’re free to stick to the story maps using a basic setup of units and play the game straight through.  But the option to take an extended Netherworld vacation is always there waiting for you if you so desire.  Just try not to indulge too much when you do.

Oh, to have those good old days back.

***

Well, that was certainly a huge god damn mess, looking back at what I just wrote.  I wonder if anyone can follow it.  I’m not sure I can myself.  But maybe that’s appropriate considering the subject matter.  Maybe there’s no other way to describe the strange chaos of the world of Disgaea than to do so chaotically yourself.

I hope that absolves me of all the writing sins I committed above.  The next post in this series will be an in-depth look into one of the Disgaea games, and I actually mean it this time.  In the meantime, try not to get so hammered you have to sleep on the sidewalk, though if you feel the need to do that, I can’t blame you. 𒀭

 

* There’s a way to get those levels back almost instantly, but I don’t want to give it away.  See if you can find out for yourself.

Deep reads #2.1: Why I like Disgaea

Since it’s still pretty much the new year at this point, I thought I’d defy the natural way of things and start it out with a retrospective series.  It certainly could not be more obvious that I’m a fan of Nippon Ichi’s Disgaea series, but I’ve never fully dedicated more than a couple of posts to the subject over the last 6+ years.  Today that changes.  In this post, I’ll be covering it at the proverbial bird’s-eye view, going over some of the general themes, aesthetics, and gameplay mechanics.  I’ll also be going over why I think you should try Disgaea out, even if it looks too strange or like too much of a time sink at first glance.  (Well, it can be a time sink, but we’ll get to that.)  And if you’re already a fan, well — you’re in the choir I’m preaching to, so just sit back and enjoy the sermon.

What the flying fuck are all these numbers about?  And why is this well-endowed lady called an “Item King”? I’ll answer the second question, but you’re on your own with the stats.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness came out in 2003 on the PS2, following Nippon Ichi’s first major strategy RPG titles in the Marl Kingdom series, The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom and La Pucelle.  Those two preceding games both received NA localizations, but they never got much attention here in the US.  Perhaps because they were games about cute girls in frilly dresses fighting demons and witches, and the niche western audience for games like that didn’t really exist at the time, or at least not on the scale that it does today.  Marl Kingdom even went through a bit of a rebranding when it came West to the American PSX, with the title Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and a cover that ensured no boy in the prime Playstation-player age range would be brave enough to buy it, assuming they might have even had an interest in it (and remember, this was well before the days of Amazon Prime, so that was pretty much the only choice unless you bought from a catalog and waited the two or three weeks it took to ship.)1

Once 13 year-old me gets to the “her one true love” part on the back he’s quickly shoving it back into the stack on the shelf.

Disgaea was a bit different.  This game established a new series with a different look and feel. The gameplay mechanics were improved and streamlined, the fantasy Renaissance European setting was replaced with a strange, alien Netherworld, and the villagers and demon hunters in frilly dresses are replaced with demon lords and monsters beating each other over the heads for supremacy and fighting against invading groups of angels from the heavenly Celestia and humans from Earth. While the Marl Kingdom series also featured demons and otherworldly settings, the focus in those games was mainly on the human characters. With Disgaea, the focus shifted more towards the demonic perspective.

A battle in the original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (2003).  The basic gameplay is an isometric grid/turn-based system similar to that of Final Fantasy Tactics and the Fire Emblem series, with a lot of gameplay twists and differences.

All these changes must have played well in the western market, because Disgaea: Hour of Darkness succeeded over here where the Marl Kingdom games didn’t so much.  It wasn’t a massive seller, exactly — it was still very much a niche title — but for a niche title, it really took, because we ended up getting every sequel in the Disgaea series ported and localized, along with most of the expanded and handheld versions and subsequent spinoff games, all the way up to Disgaea 5, the latest game in the series.2

I’m not a gaming historian or an industry analyst, so I can’t explain with any authority the reasons that this series took with the gaming audience, or at least with the niche audience it aimed for.  I can only speak to my own experience with it and try to extrapolate from my personal impressions (i.e. completely bullshit.)  So that’s what I’ll do.  I’ve boiled the reasons for why I think Disgaea is so damn great down to three categories:

1) Flexible structure and gameplay

Laharl, Prince of the Netherworld and villainous protagonist of Disgaea 1, comes up with an evil scheme.

RPGs don’t usually have a whole lot of replayability, at least relative to most other kinds of games.  You play through the main story, max out at least some of your characters while hoping the holy gods of RNG are good to them (see the Fire Emblem series for some real nerve-wracking dice rolls with stat increases), and then aside from a second playthrough or some DLC you’re probably done.

That’s not the case with Disgaea.  While each successive Disgaea title would add more and more gameplay elements, mechanics, bells and whistles, the series started out stuffed full of things to do beyond simply playing through the main scenario.  This ensured that obsessive players would be able to spend hundreds of hours and more on a single playthrough, many of those hours spent trying to beat post-game boss characters and level up weapons while grinding their characters up to level 9999 and using the reincarnation mechanic to make them even stronger.

An Item World map in the remastered Disgaea 1 Complete. This one is full of near-death copies of the same cloned enemy that can be easily killed for EXP.

Much of this time is invariably spent in the Item World, a more or less randomly generated set of maps contained “inside”3 every weapon and piece of equipment in the game numbering 30, 60, or 100 depending upon the item’s rarity. I say more or less because the Item World maps do follow certain geographical rules: they can only be so large, and the exit panel is always on the same piece of land as the home base panel. The result is a massive tower of successively harder levels in every single item in the game waiting for the player to master.  While single-use items’ worlds are rather pointless to enter, weapons and equipment can have their stats greatly increased through Item World leveling, especially if the player defeats the boss at the end of every tenth level (hence the “Item King” in the top image, the final boss of a common 30-level item.  Yes, female units can be kings too.  Quite a progressive message, isn’t it?)

It’s hard to express just how addictive the Item World can be. The concept on its own — an endless set of randomized maps to complete — might sound a bit boring, but the execution is designed to draw the player in.  Aside from the obsessive leveling of weapons and equipment, the Item World offers chances to bulk up the characters themselves by clearing each map of enemies.  However, the games also give the player the choice of clearing each map by simply sending one of his units to the exit panel.  This is often possible to achieve within one turn by building a great Tower of Babel of units and throwing each one, unit by unit, in a path that ends when the final one is thrown into the goal. In this way, the player can choose to quickly level the item or take a more leisurely approach while building his party’s levels and skills.

The top of my character tower, ready to be thrown into the goal. That Nekomata on top looks terrified.

And of course, there are the notoriously powerful post-game bosses to take on.  A Disgaea game can typically be beaten pretty easily with a team of at least a few units at around level 70 to 80, a range achieved naturally through playing the story maps.  However, the character level cap is 9999 for a reason.  Optional boss fights that take place entirely outside the main story often feature enemies from the several-hundred to several-thousand level range.  Even if many players never reach them, these bosses are entertaining challenges for those who are sucked into the vortex that is a round of post-game Disgaea.

Best of all, at least from my perspective, the games don’t try to hold your hand and guide you at all, aside from some optional  tutorials to help new players get the basics down.  The Disgaea games do feature shortcuts that the player can use to get through the game more quickly, including maps that are specifically designed for the purpose of powerleveling, but they leave it up to the player to figure all that out.  In a time when games were starting to not only hold the player’s hand but forcefully take it and not let go, this was a very nice change of pace.

For example, sometimes a crew of Ninja Pirates will sail up and you just have to deal with it. From Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories (PS2, 2006).

At the same time, the Disgaea series isn’t exactly a punishingly difficult one to play through.  Most characters learn pretty powerful skills after gaining just a few weapon proficiency levels, and the games downright encourage the player to use these skills to try crazy shit on new maps because of the relative lack of consequences for failure.  This was a major change from the tactical RPGs I’d played up until then, which featured pretty realistic hand-to-hand and ranged combat (realistic aside from the use of magic, I guess, but even those are just another kind of ranged weapon in such games.) For me, it was mainly a change from Fire Emblem and its old strict permadeath rule. In the world of Disgaea, characters that get knocked down to zero HP are simply sent home to recover, so there’s no real risk involved in throwing one into a mass of enemies as a sacrifice or a distraction. While I don’t have a problem with Fire Emblem-style permadeath (and I love some of the battlefield death monologues, as aggravating as it is to lose a character and have to restart) I also like the freedom that Disgaea gives the player to mess around with unorthodox tactics.

2) Colorful characters

Both literally and figuratively.  A lot of the look and feel of Disgaea can be attributed to artist Takehito Harada, who has a very distinctive style, the kind that you can identify immediately when you see it.  It’s all cartoonish, bright, strangely colored hair and eyes and sometimes exaggerated features on a diverse mix of demons, angels, monsters, and plain old humans. The same idea applies to the characters’ personalities, which are also sometimes over the top, and in the case of the demons especially can seem a bit twisted when compared to the angelic and human characters.

No. 1 Delinquent Raspberyl and her ninja/samurai crew in the high school-themed Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice (PS3, 2008). Demons are supposed to be callous assholes, so being a nice demon who loves peace and has good manners makes Raspberyl a dangerous delinquent in the Netherworld.

You might think this would result in characters that are jammed full of “attitude” to the point that they’re annoying.  Think a character like Bubsy, that failed 90s platformer mascot who was so wacky and lighthearted all the time that he refused to shut his god damn mouth during stages, constantly spewing bad puns.  While there might be a few Disgaea characters that seem to approach this point, I find most characters in the series to be some mix of endearing and entertaining, and even the ones that come off as overly idiotic or buffoonish are sometimes putting on an act and have some kind of agenda that the player isn’t let in on right away.  A few Disgaea characters do have that annoying “sentence-ending vocal tic” thing going on that probably flows better in the original Japanese than it does in English, though.  I don’t have a problem with the Prinnies’ signature “dood” exclamation, but with other characters it just sounds weird.

I like Usalia, but I hate her god damn fucking constant plip-ing. Is that supposed to be a sound rabbits make? I don’t care, it’s still annoying.  From Disgaea 5 (PS4, 2015).

It’s easy to forget now with all the changes to the genre and the landscape as a whole, but back in the 90s, JRPGs tended to be deadly serious.  Some series threw humor into the mix (see the infamous Wall Market section of Final Fantasy 7 that absolutely won’t and can’t be replicated in the remake today) but in general, when these games decided the fun was over, everything became dark as a meteor hurtled towards the planet, or an evil lord reigned over an oppressed country while holding the magical crystals needed to restore balance to the world, or whatever apocalyptic thing happened to be occurring that our heroes needed to fix.

While the Disgaea games do get dramatic at times, by contrast, there’s a much stronger current of humor flowing through them than through most other JRPGs.  Even when the chips are down and our heroes are in a dire situation, they manage to keep things pretty light while staying in character with some wordplay, which occasionally gets dirty, and even some dumb slapstick.

Seraphina’s entirely non-lethal gun from Disgaea 5 is pretty much a slapstick comedy device.

This seems to be the aspect of Disgaea critics cite when they call these games “juvenile”.  It’s pretty easy to see some silly, exaggerated facial expressions and some slapsticky comedy routines and write the series off on those grounds.  However, I think that approach is much too surface-level.  The Disgaea games feature characters with more depth than they might seem to have at first glance. And it usually becomes clear throughout the course of the game’s story that they’re not fighting whatever conflict they happen to be involved in just for the sake of fighting, even if they often claim that’s exactly what they’re doing — there’s always something more going on that the game will address, leading to the heavier dramatic material.

Etna gives Flonne a warning early on in Disgaea 1.  Despite all the levity in this series, things do get serious sometimes.

I’ll save specific examples for my more in-depth posts.  For now, I’ll leave it at this: it’s far easier to write characters that are trying to be profound and serious all the time but fall flat because they’re actually shallow than it is to write characters that goof off and fuck around with slapstick and dumb comedy bits but are also substantial and interesting. That’s to say that some writers get the style down well enough while completely missing the substance. In my opinion, Disgaea has both: a unique style and plenty of substance. The quality of the writing isn’t uniform throughout the series, but the better games have some truly memorable and excellent characters, and even the lesser games are pretty good on that count.

3) Everything takes place in the same multidimensional universe

Or would that be a multiverse?  I guess it would.  I don’t like that term very much, though.  Feels like it’s overused.

Part of the Disgaea 3 central cast drops in on Disgaea 5. I don’t even remember the context of this scene, why that one guy is buried neck-deep in the sand, or what the hell Mao is yelling about.

Whatever you want to call it, the Disgaea games and even other Nippon Ichi-made spinoffs all seem to take place in the same general realm of existence, even if that realm contains many different dimensions that just happen to intersect in weird ways sometimes.  The only direct sequel in the series is Disgaea D2, which continues the story of the original Disgaea. The rest exist in their own more or less separate settings, with their own casts of characters and stories.  However, the post-story sections of each game are full of bosses who are characters from previous games that can be recruited once beaten.  Even Disgaea: Hour of Darkness back in 2003 featured the characters Marjoly and Priere from the older Marl Kingdom series.  And Priere is eternally popular, with her latest appearance in the Disgaea 5 post-game boss battle roster.

Well, I can think of a couple of reasons why Priere is a fan favorite…

These intergame crossovers aren’t restricted to the post-game, however.  Two of the leads from Disgaea 1, Etna and Flonne, play central parts in the stories of Disgaea 2 and 4 respectively, so these characters are clearly all hanging out in the same uni/multiverse.  But why do I consider this a positive?  Because it means that the series can bring back popular characters like Etna and Flonne without breaking its own rules relating to setting, time, and continuity.  How can you break rules that don’t exist in the first place?  That’s an attitude I like, and it’s a big part of why I like Disgaea and Nippon Ichi’s work in general. It’s all about having a good time, even if the stories get a bit heavy and emotional sometimes.

***

And now I plan to dive deep into a couple of my favorite games in the series.  If I haven’t yet convinced the skeptical reader that this series is worth exploring at least a bit, I hope the following posts will be more persuasive.  Though unlike this one, these upcoming pieces will probably be full of spoilers.  If you don’t care about that, though, I hope you’ll look forward to reading the latest obsessive, overlong analyses I’ve been working on about the games I play to escape from this pointless, bitter grind that we call life. No, being more positive wasn’t one of my resolutions this year, in case you were wondering. I’m not even bothering to pretend this year. Anyway, until next time! 𒀭

 

1 Not that many boys would have been comfortable buying a game called The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom either, now that I think about it.  I wouldn’t have been at the time, but I was a real dumbass then.

2 Yeah, I’m saying “latest” instead of “last.”  I know Nippon Ichi is in dire financial straits, at least last I heard. But even if the company dissolves in the course of a bankruptcy proceeding (I don’t know anything about Japanese law, much less Japanese corporate bankruptcy law, so I’m just guessing it’s not too different from our system over here) the Disgaea IP seems like it would be too valuable to just leave sitting around.  What form the series would take if it left Nippon Ichi’s hands is a different question.

3 The implications of entering a separate world “inside” an item is so weird and abstract that from what I can tell, none of the games even try to address it.  It’s just another one of those aspects of the series’ mechanics that you can’t worry about too much.

Deep reads #1: Over the top, part 1 (Kaiji)

There are a few pieces of media I’ve experienced that have made me change the way I think about life. One of them features ten episodes straight of a guy playing a game of pachinko.

Pachinko.

Because Kaiji (officially Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, and a load of other titles depending on which season of the anime or chapter of the manga you’re talking about) isn’t just about gambling. It deals with money, morality, and the nature of power in ways that most other works don’t touch upon. Kaiji is serious, but it isn’t preachy or even really political. The characters in Kaiji don’t just represent broad concepts — they’re three-dimensional characters, and with one probable exception, they all feel like people you might run into in the course of your everyday life.

Kaiji is also an insanely dramatic and tense series. A character mulling over a single decision in Kaiji might take five minutes to run through all the possible outcomes in an internal monologue, all accompanied by a pounding soundtrack (written by the amazing Hideki Taniuchi,1 also largely responsible for the excellent Death Note soundtrack) and interspersed with an external narrator yelling his lines as if the world were about to end. Characters will even break down and cry on the spot in especially stressful situations.

Our protagonist Kaiji Itou, a man who’s not afraid to cry when he feels angry or hurt.

The first group of works I’ll be taking on in this first “deep reads” series contains elements like this that are generally considered “over the top.”  These works tend to be pretty divisive, with some in the audience dismissing all these accoutrements as distracting or unnecessary fluff, and others enjoying them and claiming that the over-the-top style doesn’t take away from the work but rather adds to the value of it.

While I do require a lot more than pure style alone to enjoy something fully — there has to be substance there, otherwise I can’t get into it that much — I tend to really like these over-the-top sorts of series and games, and not just because they usually produce a lot of stupid memes.  I won’t be diving into the rabbit hole that is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, at least not anytime soon, but it provides a great example of this.  How many times have you heard or seen someone throwing out a “ZA WARUDO” or “IT WAS ME, DIO” in the middle of a thread on Twitter or wherever?  Like JoJo, some of the lines and scenes in Kaiji became popular online, especially when the second season of the anime was airing.  And like JoJo, there’s more to the series than just its dramatic style. I wrote a short overview of Kaiji a long time ago, but I think it’s worth a second more in-depth look.  Also, I’m about to spoil the shit out of Kaiji, so don’t read this if you haven’t watched it and want to go in pure as the good Lord intended.

Asahi really isn’t that cheap, though.

Kaiji tells the story of Kaiji Itou, a chronically unemployed/underemployed guy in his 20s who spends his time gambling to try to make it big.  At the beginning of the series, we see Kaiji prying hood ornaments off of expensive cars out of a twisted sense of frustration at his own go-nowhere life.  When one of the guys whose cars he defaced visits Kaiji at his apartment, he freaks out, but things are made far worse when the visitor identifies himself as a yakuza loan shark named Endou.  Endou tells Kaiji that an old colleague he cosigned on a loan for has skipped town, so he’s now on the hook for a massive principal and usurious interest that he can never hope to pay back.  Kaiji is thrown into despair at the thought of having to slave away the rest of his life paying back on this unfair loan, but Endou then tells him about a competitive gambling game taking place on the ship Espoir that’s set to take a short cruise a few weeks later in which about half of the gamblers should be able to clear their debts.

With no other information about the gamble (including the fate of the losers, which Endou tells Kaiji to just not even think about — that’s not ominous at all, no) Kaiji accepts a spot on the ship, starting his participation in a cycle of dangerous underground games all run by Teiai, a criminal empire that fronts as a financial consulting corporation. Teiai is built like an iceberg: the very tip of it visible to the general public seems to be legitimate, but its real mass is hidden in the form of underground casinos, prostitution, extortion, and loan-sharking.  The games that Kaiji takes part in seem to be part of an even more underground aspect of Teiai inspired by company president Kazutaka Hyoudou, a sadistic half-crazy old billionaire who takes great pleasure in seeing human suffering of all kinds up close.

Not a face you’d want to see under any circumstances

Hence the high-stakes gambling games he runs, in which Teiai’s broke-ass desperate clients are given a chance to get rid of their debts and win money on top of that, but at incredible risk to themselves if they fail or lose.  In the course of the first season, Kaiji and his fellow debtors fight each other in games that seem straightforward at first but that require either trickery or outright brutality to get a sure win.  And when they finally get to play a game that’s cooperative instead of competitive — crossing a pair of steel beams connecting two skyscrapers hundreds of meters above the ground — the result of a loss becomes certain death.

Honestly, I might consider doing this if it meant canceling my student loan debt

Kaiji manages to survive these gambles in one piece, but he ends up failing again following a couple of face-to-face gambling battles with President Hyoudou and his representative and right-hand man Yukio Tonegawa, and he’s again saddled with several million yen in debt.  Teiai loan shark Endou shows up once again at the beginning of the second season, but not to offer Kaiji another dangerous gambling opportunity.  Endou instead shoves him into a car that takes him directly to a Teiai-owned underground labor camp, where Kaiji is imprisoned until he can work off what he owes.

At first, Kaiji despairs and drowns his sorrows in overpriced beer and yakitori sold by the company store, bought with the sub-minimum wage he earns for his backbreaking manual labor.  But after taking a sick colleague to the crowded camp medical clinic, Kaiji realizes that labor will kill him before long and decides he has to get out as soon as possible.  And how does Kaiji get out?  By gambling, of course.  Kaiji plays chinchirorin (better known here as cee-lo or just dice) against the cheating foreman of his work detail, exposing him and winning all his hoarded money with the help of an alliance of other slave laborers.  He then buys a special pass to the surface with their pooled winnings, hoping to win enough with their remaining money to pay off all the group’s debts and buy its freedom.

Kaiji in the underground labor camp, planning his way out.

This is where the pachinko comes in.  While hunting for a gambling opportunity that he can use to win big in his few weeks on the surface, Kaiji meets Sakazaki, an older gambler down on his luck who shows him just what he’s looking for: a giant pachinko machine in an illegal secret casino (run by Teiai, of course) that pays out all the winnings of the previous players.  It takes an investment to play at the Bog: a single pachinko ball usually costs four yen, but a ball in the Bog game costs a thousand times that.  However, the Bog is notorious for never paying out and has financially ruined hundreds of gamblers hoping to get at its 400 million+ yen jackpot, adding their own fortunes to the pot in the process.

Here Kaiji turns into something like a heist movie, in which Kaiji and Sakazaki go up against Ichijou, the Teiai-appointed manager of the casino.  Of course, the Bog isn’t a simple pachinko machine that can just pay out at any time: it’s meant to be a money-maker for Teiai, and Ichijou has ensured that its pins, plates, and other contraptions are designed to absolutely prevent a win.

Yes, there are about five hundred more shots of balls rolling around plates for several episodes on end

Considering this fact, Kaiji and Sakazaki know it’s not good enough to just play the Bog for a little while and hope for a win.  So they’re forced to enlist the help of none other than Endou, that Teiai loan shark who kicked off the plot in the first episode.  Endou’s own loan-sharking business has been suffering since the fall from grace of his superior, Tonegawa (who Kaiji was in fact responsible for taking down in season 1 by beating him in a high-stakes game in front of Hyoudou.)  So Endou agrees to loan Kaiji even more money to beat the Bog and split the winnings.  Kaiji then devises several tricks and strategies to beat the Bog based upon his observations of its maintenance over a couple of weeks.  In doing so, he discovers most of the cheat mechanisms that Ichijou has built into the system and is able to break past every one on the big day.

Kaiji’s balls are larger than Ichijou’s, that’s canon

After finally defeating the Bog against all odds, Kaiji splits the money with his partners Endou and Sakazaki and his allies in the underground prison camp, who are all let out after their debts are paid.  Kaiji is now a free man.  But who knows what the future holds for him? (You know if you read the manga, which continues well beyond this point.)

Kaiji has been out of the spotlight for a while now.  The anime series nearly qualifies as old at this point — the first season aired in 2007 and the second in 2011 — but it’s based on a much older property, a manga of the same name written and drawn by famous mangaka Nobuyuki Fukumoto that has been running almost without a break since 1996 and that continues to this day.  Fukumoto’s works include Akagi, Ten, and a lot of other manga series about gambling that have plenty of fans, but Kaiji is certainly his best-known work, at least here in the West. Part of this popularity comes from the fact that it received that two-season anime adaptation, but I think there’s more to it than that. While Kaiji might be extreme and over the top in its visuals, themes, and music, I think it’s also very relatable to most people, even to those who wouldn’t normally watch a show like this.

And I do understand why Kaiji would put a lot of viewers off, at least upon a first viewing.  As first impressions go, Kaiji has a lot working against it, mostly in its visual style.  Fukumoto’s manga work features characters with exaggerated, sometimes bizarrely twisted facial features.  While the art in the anime adaptation looks pretty polished (Kaiji is a joint production with Madhouse, and they do a great job with it) the characters have kept most of those strange features, most obvious in the protagonist and the chief antagonist.  Kaiji sports an extremely sharp, pointy nose and chin that he could probably use as lethal weapons if he were so inclined.  While Hyoudou just looks more like a really old guy, his mannerisms are often grotesque — though he still mostly has his wits, when he gets excited he will start to giggle, cackle, and drool as he imagines how Kaiji will suffer when the drill attached to his ear pierces his eardrum and drills into his brain during that extremely high-stakes game against his lieutenant Tonegawa.

This arc features a bunch of “hypothetical scenario” shots of a drill piercing an ear and showing the entire structure of the inner ear getting destroyed and spurting blood, which I’ll spare you here. It wasn’t easy to watch

The extreme style of the series doesn’t end at its visuals, however.  The plot elements themselves are way over the top at times.  The idea of even the worst, most sadistic billionaire criminal being able to set up deadly gambling competitions is scary, but it’s also insane enough to be pretty unbelievable.  People are capable of terrible cruelty, and money can help them carry that cruelty out to some extent without getting into trouble, but Hyoudou is so rich and has bribed so many officials into looking the other way that he’s practically the secret ruler of Japan at this point — he can do pretty much anything he wants, including running death games using his debtors as human rats for his enjoyment and setting up underground prison labor camps filled with the surviving debtors who don’t win and can’t pay him back.  That stuff does feel pretty damn far-fetched.

However, the troubles of these debtors that got them into these crazy situations aren’t far-fetched at all.  People need money to start businesses, to finance medical debt, or simply to live after they’ve lost their jobs.  If they’re desperate enough and their credit cards are already maxed out assuming they ever even had credit extended to them, they might respond to a flyer promising quick money, no questions asked.

A Teiai flyer from the manga. You’d expect a weird billionaire who sets up human death sports to be more reclusive and secretive, but no, his face is right on their ads

I see these kinds of “quick money no questions asked” flyers posted on telephone polls along the roads on the way to the city where I work.  Clearly this aspect of Kaiji is not over-the-top or far-fetched at all.  A lot of people need money, and they are sometimes willing to take big risks (and sometimes even unknown risks, as we see at the very beginning of Kaiji) to get it.  They’re also willing to stab each other in the back when enough money is on the line.  During the very first story arc of the series, Kaiji makes an alliance with two other debtors, Andou and Furuhata, who are playing that competitive gambling game on the ship Espoir.  Furuhata even happens to be the very co-worker who tried to run from his debt and screwed Kaiji in the process.  Nevertheless, Kaiji and his new allies vow to win and escape together, as a single unit.

This friendship is almost immediately broken once Kaiji decides to sacrifice himself by losing the game for the sake of the team and telling them to rescue him with the money they end up making as a result.  Once Kaiji is on the other side of the glass (in a room filled with other losers who have been stripped entirely naked by Teiai guards, possibly in preparation to get them ready to go to a prison camp or to an even worse fate) his “allies” turn their backs on him, using the benefit they gained from his sacrifice to make more money for themselves.

I don’t know if you really want me to get into how Restricted Rock Paper Scissors works, but it does involve a room full of naked men at some point

It would be easy for Kaiji to simply say “people only care about money and are only out for themselves” and leave it at that.  That’s a cynical message, but it would resonate well enough with a lot of viewers.  However, this series takes a more complex view of people than that.  After Kaiji manages to escape from the ship’s lost debtor naked man room by using some of his own trickery, he wrests his rightful share of his team’s winnings away from them and uses those funds to save another man he made a very brief connection with, a man who was also tricked by a supposed friend.  Kaiji claims he’s throwing his money away by saving this guy, almost like he’s doing it just to spite his faithless allies, and he ends up regretting his decision after leaving the ship in even greater debt than he started in as a result of his actions.

Kaiji’s selfless act at the end of this first arc sets a trend, however.  Throughout the first half of the first season, Kaiji is faced with opportunities to get ahead by figuratively stabbing other debtors in the back or by literally physically harming them, but he always ends up refusing to do so.  And throughout the second season, Kaiji spends a lot of his time devising plans with his new friends, first in Teiai’s underground prison camp with some of his fellow debtors and later in his fight against the Bog when he joins up with Sakazaki and Endou.  Kaiji’s underground allies trust him so much, in fact, that they give him all the money they win using his strategies, relying on his creativity and ability to win their freedom for good despite the odds being stacked against him.  And their trust in Kaiji is well-placed, because he also puts faith in his friends, even after he’s betrayed at the end of the first arc.  Kaiji’s attitude can be contrasted with Hyoudou’s — the all-powerful president of Teiai seems to believe only in the power of money and will gladly step on his subordinates if they fail or displease him.

Fun trivia fact: that painting in the background is based on a real portrait of King Francis I of France.  But was he as crazy as President Hyoudou?

All this might fall flat if Kaiji were an unnaturally saintly sort of character, something like a Mary Sue, but he’s not.  Kaiji turns into a lazy bum when the pressure is off and is totally capable of being a dick sometimes, even if he tries to justify it to himself.  He also doesn’t always have a lot of self-discipline when the heat is on, as we see when he’s tempted to drown his sorrows in beer sold at a high markup in the prison camp, getting him even deeper into the hole of debt he dug for himself.  And even when Kaiji is doing well, he may get arrogant and push his luck too far (though he seems to have learned some lessons and gotten wiser in the second season after that arrogance leads him to a major screw-up at the end of the first.)

When Kaiji is forced into a life-or-death situation, his powers of genius turn on, allowing him to find a way to beat seemingly impossible odds.  However, those genius powers of his are usually dormant.  Kaiji might look a lot like Akagi, the mahjong prodigy from Fukumoto’s manga and anime series Mahjong Legend Akagi, but where Akagi is an unstoppable, demonic force of nature who crushes all his opponents almost without flinching,2 Kaiji is pretty much a regular guy most of the time, with regular guy sort of loves and hates, hopes and desires.  That makes it all the more impressive and inspiring that Kaiji is able to not only survive and win, but to help along his friends and allies to victory as well.

Even most of the antagonists in Kaiji aren’t exactly villains.  Kaiji meets both friends and enemies in the course of his gambles and struggles, including some who are enemies disguised as friends.  But the one thing they almost all have in common is their instinct for self-preservation.  Almost every character in Kaiji is, on some level, just trying to survive and make their own progress.  When Kaiji’s allies in the Espoir arc stab him in the back, they don’t do it just to watch him suffer — Andou makes the point to Furuhata that if they abandon Kaiji, they can keep the money they’d otherwise need to use to save him, thus leaving the ship with some financial security.  Kaiji shames them for their betrayal when he manages to escape by using his own wits, kneeing that asshole Andou in the gut in one of the most satisfying scenes in the show.  But Andou’s logic is frightening, cold, and downright human.  Why help your friend and merely survive when you can help yourself and thrive instead?

Time to beat the devil out of you then!

The same is true for the Teiai employees Kaiji battles.  These characters are motivated at least in part out of a fear of losing everything they’ve gained.  This is very obvious throughout Kaiji’s fight with Ichijou.  The Bog is Ichijou’s ultimate creation: a pachinko machine so impossible to beat and yet so tempting to play that it earned its name by eating hundreds of men alive, wiping out their savings and even throwing them deep into debt.  We learn that Ichijou was able to claw his way up from basically a janitorial position at Teiai’s casino to manager by coming up with clever new ways to get money out of their customers, all while leaving them with just enough hope of a big win to lure them back for more.  This is exactly what the Bog does; it’s a legendary machine that keeps drawing gamblers in to their destruction.

When Kaiji sits down with his final matchup against the Bog on his last day of leave from the labor camp, Ichijou soon discovers that Kaiji has somehow broken the machine’s defenses and consequently loses his shit.  Ichijou is about to end the battle and throw Kaiji out on the basis that he must have tampered with the machine, but then he gets a call from his boss, Hyoudou.

It doesn’t go well

The old company president is watching Kaiji’s match and has even ordered that a TV be set up in the underground prison camp so that Kaiji’s allies can watch him.  Of course, Hyoudou’s ultimate intention isn’t very nice — he seems to want to give these lowly debtor prisoners hope and see that hope crushed when Kaiji loses.  Hyoudou also has a strange fascination with Kaiji, though, having seen his abilities up close in the first season during his battle against his lieutenant Tonegawa.  He therefore commands that Ichijou let the match continue, reasoning that if he threw Kaiji out now, the crowd of other gamblers watching him challenge the Bog would think it unfair and lose their trust in Teiai.

However, the price for failure is massive.  When Kaiji finally does manage to break the Bog so completely that all Ichijou’s cheats are useless, he gets a ball into the winning hole, capturing the jackpot and freeing himself and his friends.  But someone has to be on the hook for losing all that money, and Ichijou ends up getting dragged down into the hellish labor camp by the very same guards who were there to bring Kaiji back.

Again, ideally not the boss you’d want to work for

Even Hyoudou’s most accomplished officers aren’t safe.  The chief villain throughout most of the first season is Yukio Tonegawa, a stern, no-nonsense Teiai executive who’s recognized as the corporation’s number two.  As Hyoudou’s right-hand man, Tonegawa is tasked with coming up with games to amuse the old sadist, exactly the kinds of high-stakes games that Kaiji and the other debtors are enrolled in.  After Kaiji manages to cross the deadly steel beam — the only one out of ten players to survive — he’s denied his prize money on a technicality.  However, he’s give the option to play another game to win potentially even more money, this time against Tonegawa himself.  With Hyoudou as the chief spectator, Kaiji and Tonegawa play a high-stakes card game.  Tonegawa plays as a representative of Hyoudou and thus places many millions of yen of Hyoudou’s money on the line.  Kaiji, on the other hand, has nothing to offer as a sacrifice in the gamble but one of his body parts, and so he’s required to wear a special device that moves an electric drill into his ear every time he loses a round.  Kaiji can bet millimeters of the drill in place of the money he lacks, but eventually if he loses enough, his eardrum will be pierced.

Tonegawa can read your thoughts. Or can he?

We’re initially made to believe that Tonegawa is completely in control of this situation.  He boasts to Kaiji that his long experience in business and negotiation allows him to read other people like open books.  Because of this, Tonegawa claims that he can easily beat Kaiji by observing his tells in the way an expert poker player might.  However, Tonegawa is actually cheating — the device on Kaiji’s ear is designed to read his pulse, temperature, and blood pressure, and Tonegawa’s watch contains a disguised readout of Kaiji’s vitals.  Once Kaiji realizes the setup, he understands that the only way to beat Tonegawa is to remove the device from his ear.  But it’s locked in place, so Kaiji takes an extreme step: he goes to the bathroom in the middle of the game and smashes his head against the glass in the mirror, then cuts his ear off with a shard of glass, managing to maintain most of its vital sign readouts by giving his severed ear to an extremely terrified leftover contestant from an earlier game to hold.  Kaiji is thus able to trick Tonegawa and beat him in the second-to-last round by holding a towel to his bleeding head, covering his missing ear, and also in the last round after his trick is discovered and a new device is placed on his other ear.

Hyoudou seems impressed by Kaiji’s ability, but he’s more annoyed with Tonegawa.  Not so much for losing all that money, it seems — 20 million yen barely even counts as pocket change to Hyoudou — but for denying him the show of Kaiji having his brain pierced by a drill upon his loss.  So Hyoudou forces Tonegawa to atone for his mistakes by kneeling and bowing to him.  Well, that’s not so bad, right?

Tonegawa facing the literal heat for his loss

Except that Tonegawa has to kneel and bow on top of a giant hotplate, keeping his forehead pressed to the plate for at least ten seconds.  This, according to Hyoudou, is the only way to show him true sincerity, aside from paying back what he lost, of course.  Tonegawa manages to maintain his pride by successfully performing the torturous “roasting kneeling”, even if he ends up falling out of Hyoudou’s favor anyway in the second season.  But Kaiji is horrified by this.  What sort of man is this Hyoudou, to make people literally grill themselves for displeasing him?

Hyoudou is that one exception I brought up.  Every other opponent that Kaiji faces throughout the series is either a fellow debtor to Teiai or an employee of Teiai.  No matter how serious a threat they might seem to be, they are all under Hyoudou’s thumb and are all at risk of falling into disgrace or even into hell if they get on his bad side.  Even Tonegawa, who presides over all the treacherous gambles and games Kaiji takes part in throughout most of the first season, and who seems so powerful, turns out to be a nobody in the face of Hyoudou’s madness.  And that’s the most interesting aspect of this setup to me, because Hyoudou also seems to be under the power of his own madness.

Is this how the most elite of the elite drink wine?

Even if he does usually seem pretty sharp, Hyoudou is undoubtedly wrong in the head somehow.  He manages to maintain his position as the actual head of Teiai while also carrying out the kind of decadent cruelties that would make the worst Roman emperors jealous.  How he manages this, the show doesn’t really address.  What it means, though, is that Kaiji is fighting against a corporation ruled by wealth and the influence it buys, but also partly by literal madness.  Hyoudou maintains his power, but he also has a monstrous philosophy of life.  He seems to have no friends; every single person surrounding him is expendable.

Kaiji, meanwhile, is only able to achieve what he does with the help of his friends and allies.  His genius powers of problem-solving always require cooperation with someone else.  This is most obvious in the second season, but even in the first, Kaiji is only able to make progress and get off the Espoir with the help of his allies, even if they do end up turning traitor.  Even giving his severed ear to his fellow contestant allowed Kaiji to fool Tonegawa into trusting his faulty vital sign readouts.  Kaiji succeeds by employing deception against his enemies, but he always treats his allies with honesty and good faith.  And that honesty and good faith is finally paid back many times over at the end of the series when Kaiji and his friends are finally set free, crying tears of joy at their happy reunion as the fantastic first season OP theme plays.

Another lesson Kaiji teaches us: men can cry too.

If you’ve read this site for a while, you know that I have real problems finding positivity in life.  Any work of art that pretends life is all sunshine and flowers and unicorns just doesn’t work for me, unless it’s meant to be one of those “healing” series or a straight up slice-of-life (and even those can be realistically dark sometimes.)  However, I’ve also come to dislike works that are completely fatalistic about how shitty humanity and the world are.

Kaiji takes an approach that I can appreciate now far more than ever.  It admits that life is hard, sometimes nearly unbearable, and that people tend to be weak in the face of life’s hardships and take the easy way out, even when that means betraying their friends and ideals.  It also shows how people can overcome those hardships and weaknesses through perseverance and friendship.  Yeah, life often sucks, but whether you give up and stop struggling or betray your core ideals is entirely up to you.  That’s not a new idea, of course.  But all the insane, over the top elements of Kaiji work in service of that message to deliver it effectively.

And that’s it for the first installment of this series.  I hope it wasn’t too out there.  I’ll be continuing it next time with a look at one of my favorite game series of all time, so look forward to that.  In the meantime, I really suggest watching Kaiji, even if you feel like you may not be able to get past the weird art style.  Just give it a shot — no loss if it doesn’t work for you, and if it does, you’ll be in for an excellent experience.  Even though I just spoiled the whole damn show in this piece.  Well, it’s more about the journey than the destination, right?  You should still check it out.

There are also some great out-of-context screenshots like this, so if you just like those you should watch Kaiji too. 𒀭

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1 Mr. Taniuchi hasn’t made a soundtrack or any other kind of work that I know of since his work on Kaiji because he’s sitting in a prison cell for marijuana use.  It would be great if the authorities would free him, both because he’s an amazing talent and because it’s stupid in general to lock people up for using marijuana.

2 This isn’t meant as a put-down of Akagi at all.  I used to consider it my favorite anime series ever, in fact, and it’s still on my list of favorite shows.  It’s just a very different experience from Kaiji, despite all the surface similarities it shares (same writer and studio, similar art style, both are about gambling.  And Akagi and Kaiji even have the same voice actor.  Same with Hyoudou and Washizu, the chief villain of Akagi.)  Anyway, definitely check out Akagi as well if you get the chance.

Deep reads #0: Preface

Yes, it’s yet another new feature here on the site. This time, though, the idea behind it is very broad — it’s just going to be me writing about certain themes and concepts present in games and anime series and other forms of entertainment I like.  This gives me the opportunity to cover both works that I’ve written about before in greater detail and sharper focus and works that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.  I’ll be lumping most of these posts into sub-series sorted by theme that might run anywhere from 2 to 4 or 5 posts.  I hope this whole series/sub-series setup doesn’t get too tangled up or confusing.

Hell, the title I’ve chosen for the feature is already confusing enough.  I went with “deep reads” because I’m covering these works in greater depth than I normally would in a basic review and because every other title I thought of was too clunky, but the “reads” part doesn’t make much sense because I probably won’t be covering any books.  I do a mind-numbing amount of reading at work anyway.  Someone else can write theses about profound works of literature; I’m sticking to weeb-centric and weeb-adjacent games and shows just like I always have.  And western stuff as well.  Anything that grabs my interest, really, but the point is it will be the same sort of stuff I’ve written about for the last few years here.

I admit I’d play video games for 3 days straight if I could get away with it, but I wouldn’t do those second and third things just to be clear

Since these posts are going to be more analyses than reviews, they’ll all be full of spoilers.  If you’re curious about my opinions of these works but you don’t want to read a particular post because you’re avoiding spoilers, here’s a blanket statement that you can rely on: I recommend checking out every single work I’ll be writing about in this series, because I more or less like all of them.  They might not all be for you, of course, which is why I say I recommend checking them out instead of buying them right away.  Though if you trust my judgment and taste enough to do that, I’d be very flattered.

You can look forward to the first post in this series soon (or soon-ish, at least.)  In the meantime, feel free to follow me on Twitter even though I hardly ever post there.