A review of Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky (PS4)

I’m really plowing through Atelier now. Only one month after writing about Atelier Ayesha, I didn’t think I’d be done with the next game in the series so soon. But Escha & Logy is just that kind of game — the kind that pulls you in and refuses to let you go. Or at least that’s what it was for me.

Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is the middle game in the Dusk trilogy of the much larger Atelier series. While it continues along in the same world and features some returning characters, it’s a more or less self-contained story like almost every Atelier game seems to be, so you don’t have to start from Ayesha to understand what’s going on here. All you’ll miss out on are some references to Ayesha and her situation that aren’t critical to the central plot of Escha & Logy. So don’t worry about starting from the middle if that’s what you plan on doing, though if you’re buying the Dusk trilogy as a package as it’s commonly sold, I’d still recommend starting from the beginning with Ayesha (though of course it is possible to buy any of these games separately as well if you don’t want to take that plunge, and Escha & Logy stands well enough on its own in that regard.)

Also, just a note that as before, this is a review of the DX edition released on the PS4. I can’t comment very much on any of the other versions since I haven’t played them.

Note that there are two names in this game’s title and a plural Alchemists in there: this time around, we have two protagonists instead of one. Our story begins in a small government office in the frontier town of Colseit, where two young alchemists have just been hired to join the Research and Development department. Escha Malier is a girl native to the town who grew up practicing traditional alchemy (the “stir a bunch of stuff in a giant cauldron” type we’re familiar with from past games) and she’s joined by a new arrival from Central City, Logix Ficsario aka Logy, who uses more modern, specialized forms of alchemy and is totally unfamiliar with Escha’s practices.

But they’ll have to work together. Marion Quinn, their direct superior (and the first of several familiar faces if you’ve played Ayesha) has the duty of restoring both the reputation and the budget of Colseit’s branch R&D office by showing its value to Central City, and Escha and Logy’s alchemy and exploration skills will be vital to these efforts.

Bureaucracy, budgeting, and resource management: now this is a god damn game

Escha and Logy couldn’t be more different in some respects. Aside from their different methods of alchemy, from day one it’s obvious that they have divergent personalities and outlooks on life in general. Escha approaches her work with a lot of excitement and with a sense of wonder. By contrast, while Logy is certainly serious about his work, he also comes off as a lot more grounded, trying to pull Escha back when he thinks her ideas are a bit out there.

This gap between Escha and Logy becomes more obvious when talk comes up about the Unexplored Ruins, a massive ruin built by a lost past civilization that somehow floats in the air. Nobody knows how it’s floating or how or why it was built, but Escha’s cousin, the airship engineer Awin, dreams about exploring it and tells Escha and Logy that he’d like to build an airship capable of somehow making it through the dangerous debris surrounding the ruin. Escha encourages Awin and says she’d love to explore the ruins too, but Logy is skeptical about the whole thing. While he’s naturally interested in whatever mysteries the ruin has to offer, if it’s basically impossible to make it there, what’s the point of thinking about it in the first place?

This hot and cold sort of odd couple dynamic between Escha and Logy works really well. It’s not played up to a ridiculous point where their differences are exaggerated — as before, our protagonists and their friends feel like pretty believable and sometimes relatable sorts of characters — but their differences are still stark enough to make their relationship more interesting. And probably partly because of that, when the game gets around to a little bit of drama between the two later on, it feels believable as well.

Escha and Logy’s differences complement each other nicely in the story, but these are also worked into the gameplay, especially when you’re working in the atelier. When you start Escha & Logy, you have the choice of playing as either protagonist, but the choice doesn’t matter all that much aside from getting some story details particular to one or the other in each playthrough. You’ll be working together for the entire game anyway; there are certain things that only Escha knows how to do, and certain other things that only Logy can do, so they have to rely on each other. Since Escha is versed in traditional alchemy, she performs all the item synthesis, while Logy uses his modern techniques to create new weapons and disassemble relics found in the field and dungeon areas to break them down to their component ingredients. And since they’re both alchemists, they can both use items in battle, which is a massive benefit once your alchemy level starts rising.

Who would have thought making an apple tart could be so complicated? I can’t bake at all, so for all I know, this is what it’s like in real life too.

Escha and Logy don’t have the freedom to do whatever they like, because there’s still more time management in this game. However, unlike Ayesha, which sticks you with a single goal and a three-year time limit to achieve it, Escha & Logy is broken down into several four-month terms. At the beginning of each term, you have a staff meeting with Marion, who reviews your work in the previous term and gives you your new assignments. These are broken into a 5 by 5 bingo card-looking grid, with one mandatory assignment to complete in the center and optional secondary assignments surrounding it.

Failing to complete the mandatory assignment results in a game over, so that’s where your efforts should always be directed first, but it’s always worth trying to fill out the entire grid for the alchemy and combat bonuses they give you (and also to get praised by Marion, which is a plus in itself. Or maybe I just like hearing more of her ara ara onee-san style voice. Am I showing my hand too much here?)

Since they’re government employees, Escha and Logy also have to receive approval for their expenses from the government based in Central City, and to do that, they have to go through resident bureaucrat Solle Grumman. This guy might seem like a real jerk at first, but he’s actually on your side — more or less, anyway. In addition to Marion’s assignments, Solle offers item synthesis and monster-killing requests for you to fulfill that he’ll pay you for in sweets that you can give to the resident homunculus (the small furry animal-looking guys) who use their magic to replicate items. This is an incredibly useful function that you’ll want to use to save time and energy, especially later on in the game when you’ll be trying to create items and gear with special and rare properties.

The upside to being government employees is that you’ll get a monthly stipend, the size of which depends on how much productive activity you’ve engaged in that month fulfilling Solle’s requests, fighting monsters out in the field, or creating items in the atelier. This was a nice break from my playthrough of Ayesha, where Ayesha had a nearly empty purse most of the time. Despite all the griping about how arrogant and shitty the central government is to its branch offices, they don’t skimp on those stipends.

I know this screenshot makes Escha & Logy look like some kind of anime Bureaucracy Simulator game, but bureaucracy has its benefits too.

And as always, you’ll have outside help from friends both old and new while running around in the field and dungeon areas. Escha & Logy again features a map with a lot of areas to discover and explore, monsters to fight, and ingredients to gather, and the pair is joined in the field by returning characters like Linca, Wilbell, and Nio (the very same Nio you were tasked with rescuing in Atelier Ayesha) and new characters like Awin, badass fighter/historian Threia, and child merchant Katla, whose irresponsible as hell parents left her all alone to manage their store while they’re out traveling the world. But she does try to rip you off a whole lot, so it’s hard to feel too bad for her.

Katla is a damn brat, but despite how she looks and acts, she’s an asset in a fight.

Each game I’ve played in the Atelier series so far has managed to create its own special character and feel distinct from the others. Escha & Logy, despite having a similar look to Ayesha with the same character designer and artists and taking place in the same world, plays very differently. While Ayesha was focused more on exploration, Escha & Logy puts a big emphasis on item and gear synthesis and creation. Its base alchemy system is taken partly from Ayesha, but it feels a little more intuitive. Which is good, because you’ll probably be doing a hell of a lot of alchemy to fulfill requests and especially to maximize the value of your time out in the field.

Organizing Escha and Logy’s gear before going out to the field. Items this time around are automatically replenished when you return to base. However, you have limited space to carry them, and other party members aside from the protagonists can’t carry anything, so resource management is once again a must.

The old turn-based combat system has also been improved, with a new three-member front line and three-member reserve setup in which your back line characters can offer supporting attacks and swap into the front line if needed. This new system is a lot more engaging than the more basic combat featured in Ayesha, so people who get bored with more standard forms of turn-based combat might find something to like here. Having two alchemists in the party also comes with great benefits: Escha and Logy can learn new joint techniques later on in the game that really help when trying to take down massively powerful bosses. Working out how to use Double Draw effectively is necessary to deal with the most challenging fights.

This dragon looks difficult, but it’s nowhere near the most frustrating fight in the game. Also see Escha here, perfectly suited for combat in a wedding dress bonus costume. I don’t even remember why I put this on her, but it looks pretty funny seeing her and Logy fight in wedding gear.

Speaking of wedding gear, there’s the Escha-Logy relationship, which as far as I know is unique in the series. This isn’t the only game that features a choice of protagonist,1 but it is the only one I know of that seriously suggests a romance between them, or between any characters who aren’t already together for that matter. It’s still a very light element of the game and not central to the plot at all, so light in fact that it wasn’t even featured in the PS3 original. But from Escha & Logy Plus on the Vita on to the DX editions, the player has had the choice in some conversations between two dialogue options, one friendly and the other romantic, each choice helpfully indicated by a smile and a heart. So it’s up to the player: if you want to imagine Escha and Logy as just good friends, you can keep things strictly platonic, but if you want something more between them, you can go the romance route, and you’ll get some extra bits of dialogue that show they have feelings for each other and that other characters recognize they might be getting especially close.

Usually these games don’t touch on romance very much at all aside from some extremely coy “these two girls might be into each other” yuri stuff (probably more prominent in the Arland series — see Rorona and Cordelia, Totori and Mimi, and Meruru and Keina.) It’s more explicit here, though, and I don’t mind that.2 And really, Escha and Logy seem like they’d make a good couple anyway. Opposites attracting and all that stuff. I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but these two have great chemistry, and they’re the sorts of opposites who could actually complement each other well, so the option doesn’t feel forced at all.

All that said, I still wonder what drew me in specifically about Atelier Escha & Logy so quickly. I’ve basically enjoyed every game in the series I’ve played so far, but none of the others captured me in the way this one did. The entertaining dynamic between the two main characters is definitely part of it — it was pretty fun seeing how Escha and Logy reacted to new situations and played off of each other.

The CGs featured in a lot of these situations were also a draw; the art in Escha & Logy is just as good as ever. And yeah, Escha’s tail is explained in the game. I was wondering about it too.

I think it has to do with the structure of the game as well. I found that breaking the action into smaller four-month pieces rather than having one massive three-year task to complete made the game more approachable than Ayesha and Meruru. I don’t know if this was Gust’s intention, but it felt like a throwback to Atelier Rorona, which featured similar three-month goals to complete. The time pressure in Rorona still felt greater, too, at least from what I remember. Escha & Logy certainly wants to keep you on track, but it gives you all the resources you need to complete everything well within its time constraints. In just about every term, I was able to finish all my tasks so early that I had plenty of free time to develop my alchemy skills and explore as I wished.

I also like the way the story of the game is rooted in its setting. The World of Dusk we first explored in Atelier Ayesha was clearly in serious decline, with vegetation dying off and land drying up in parts, but things didn’t look quite so bad in Ayesha’s part of the world, and the game didn’t focus on that aspect so much anyway. Escha & Logy, by contrast, is directly concerned with the declining environment and its effects on human life — many of Escha and Logy’s tasks have to do with exploring the causes of these changes, examining drying water sources and using alchemy to try to improve harvest yields. Colseit is a kind of oasis in this part of the world with its apple orchards, but it’s not immune from the effects of these catastrophic changes either. And as in Ayesha, it’s implied that the misuse of alchemy by the fallen past civilization caused many of these problems.3

The team exploring a volcano/lava flow. Nio’s sister Ayesha is an important part of this “responsible use of alchemy” theme. Given how much she’s brought up on the side here, maybe we’ll meet her again in the next game. I’d like to see what’s happening with her too.

There’s also the usual praise I have to give to the art and music. As far as the character design goes, I think Hidari fully measures up to Mel Kishida at this point. And I really like the jazz and prog flavor in the soundtrack. The connection isn’t a big surprise, because I’m pretty sure someone at Gust is a big fan of Yes — there are battle tracks in this game titled “Close to the Edge Part 2” and “Don’t Kill the Dragon”, and I can absolutely see the prog influence in a few tracks (like The Tiger of Dorothea, sounds ELP-ish? Maybe with a mix of fusion with that guitar. I like it.) Also, the opening theme Milk-Colored Pass is excellent.

Since I’ve been nothing but positive about Atelier Escha & Logy up until now, I may as well drop a few potential negatives about the game, starting with its increased emphasis on learning and using alchemy to create better items. The space restrictions you have to deal with throughout aren’t too unreasonable, but they do require you to do some work to fit as much power as you can into Escha and Logy’s setups. And near the end of the game, you’re thrown into a very long one-year-plus final term with a special assignment in which you’re encouraged to do some extremely precise alchemy to get very particular high-level attributes on items and gear so you can take on difficult bosses (and to carry over to the second playthrough if you’re going for the true ending, which you can’t even get on the first since it requires you to complete both Escha and Logy’s stories anyway.)

Which means you have to run through all these field and dungeon areas twice if you want that true ending, but the second time around it will be a lot quicker as long as you have your new game plus overpowered weapons, armor, and accessories equipped.

None of this is actually a negative point for me, since I liked this aspect of it, but it may be for some players who prefer the exploration and combat aspects of JRPGs like these. And it might not even be true for you depending on how you play the game. This is just how I felt the game pushed me to play, given the challenges it threw at me and the tools I had to deal with them. Like the others, it doesn’t absolutely force you to play in any particular way, but if you don’t use those tools it provides effectively, you might have a harder time.

Another possible issue is the game’s tendency to throw you into boss fights without much warning. This happens a few times in Escha & Logy, and I can see it being a pain for some players who might prefer a hint as to what’s coming so they can be properly prepared. On the other hand, the game might be using this as a way to hammer home the old Boy Scouts’ motto “always be prepared.” I was never a Boy Scout, so I was caught off guard when this happened and just managed to scrape by. On the plus side, I appreciated the challenge the game provided in these fights — though I was thrown into them, I could also deal with them by using proper tactics in battle and by having a mix of powerful attack and healing items.

Protip: Make Knowledge Books

Finally, there’s the problem with certain item and effect names and descriptions in this game. I’d say the above two points aren’t flaws at all but rather purposeful design aspects of Escha & Logy that some players might not enjoy. However, this one is undoubtedly a flaw, and not an insignificant one. For one example, item effects in Atelier Ayesha followed the very familiar “S -> M -> L” small, medium and large naming convention also followed by t-shirt manufacturers and fast food places, but Escha & Logy inexplicably flips this order, with L denoting the weakest and S the strongest effect. So now instead of small to medium to large, the scale now presumably runs from light to moderate to strong or something like it.

If that had been the convention the trilogy and the series as a whole had been following until now, it would have been fine, but it wasn’t, and changing it like this is bizarre and confusing. And hell if it doesn’t go right back to the old small, medium, and large system in the following game Atelier Shallie, meaning you have to unlearn this dumb shit and mentally readjust anyway if you’re playing straight through the whole Dusk trilogy as I am.

One entry in the game’s large library. This one makes it sound like Escha and Logy can access the Midnight Hour, but unfortunately the Time Watch doesn’t actually work that way.

This issue extends to some of the expanded descriptions in the library. Take the attribute Fixed Healing+ for an example. I had to look up what the flying fuck the game meant by Healing item is fairly enhanced by a set amount. The weaker the base power, the higher the effect. It vaguely makes sense, but what does it mean in real terms? That this effect is proportionally less powerful the more powerful the item is? I guess, but I’m still not sure how that works out in comparison with other healing-related attributes I could be using in synthesis instead. And if it’s a “set amount”, why does the second sentence imply that the amount can change based on the power of the item? Then it’s not actually a set amount, is it?

This might all be a stupid nitpick. However, Atelier games contain reams of information about monsters, weapons, accessories, and items and their associated effects in battle, and while some of this info is clearly just there for flavor and background, a lot of it’s actually useful to know when you’re synthesizing items. And when there are so many items, ingredients, and attributes available to play with when doing alchemy, clarity and consistency of language are necessary. I’m not sure how much of the weirdness in the descriptions in Escha & Logy came from the original Japanese release and how much was a result of a poor localization job, either. The S/M/L thing might have been an issue with the original, but the item descriptions feel like more of a bad translation issue. But I can’t say any of this for sure since I haven’t played the JP version of the game.

Whoever was responsible for this maybe should have taken a cue from the game and held a staff meeting to hammer it out, because it seems like an extremely avoidable problem. (Also I love Linca’s expression on the right. She’d rather be out killing dragons than dealing with paperwork. Sorry, Linca.)

Despite that pretty large annoyance, I’d say Escha & Logy is the best Atelier game I’ve played so far. If nothing else, it’s a credit to just how much this game drew me in that despite these issues, I finished Escha & Logy within one month of finishing Ayesha, and also given how much work I’ve had to do at the same time that wasn’t playing JRPGs. (If I could make a career out of that… but I’m not a cute anime girl with a streaming setup on YouTube or Twitch, so I have no chance.)

And now it’s on to the final game in the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie. I’m already a few chapters into Shallie at the time of writing, so it shouldn’t be too long until I’m through with that as well. But before moving on, I should note that Escha & Logy got a 12-episode anime adaptation that I haven’t seen, as far as I know the only Atelier game to have this distinction. From what I hear, it’s not that great and I’m not missing anything by skipping it. My anime backlog is already way too long to add a show telling a story I already know, and then probably not as well as the source material did. If you saw it, though, feel free to let me know your thoughts about it in the comments. 𒀭

***

1 Atelier Shallie also has two protagonists, and I think Atelier Lydie & Suelle probably does as well based on the title alone. I went with Escha on my first run, but you have to play through the game as both Escha and Logy to get the true ending anyway, and thankfully the new game plus bonuses make that second run a lot easier.

2 I honestly wouldn’t mind slightly more explicit yuri stuff in these games either — not explicit in the 18+ sense of course, but more something like what Escha & Logy gives us. Then again, maybe all the hinting without actually coming out and saying it is what yuri fans really want. I can’t say for sure.

3 Even the names of the protagonists fit into this theme: Escha, with the ch pronounced as a hard “k” sound, Logy with a soft “g”, and the & pronounced to in Japanese, all jammed together, make the word eschatology, or the study of the end of the world. Wordplay based on an English word that only works if you use Japanese to get there, that’s pretty damn impressive.

A review of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (PS4)

It took a while, but I’m happy to say that my gap between Atelier games this time wasn’t nearly as long as my last one — six years between Rorona and Meruru, and only eight months between Meruru and Ayesha, the next game in the line chronologically (though yeah, I know Totori is still missing in that list, and I do intend to take care of that at some point. But I did finish this one, so let me bask in that for now at least. Finishing an Atelier game always feels like a big accomplishment.)

Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk originally came out on the PS3 in 2012, but like the Arland games that preceded it, it got an upgraded Plus release on the Vita and the DX version that I played on the PS4, along with ports on the Switch and PC. With this game, however, we’re leaving behind the colorful world of Arland and traveling to a somewhat bleaker one. Atelier Ayesha and the following two titles Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie compose the Dusk trilogy, which takes place in a completely different world from that of the Arland games, one that’s falling apart: the World of Dusk, appropriately named for the time of the day just before night falls. From the very beginning of Ayesha, we learn that plant life has been dying off and sources of nutrition are becoming scarcer in this world, forcing humanity to conserve its resources to survive.

But the story of the game is a lot more personal than that might suggest. We’re not out to save the world, but rather one person. The protagonist, Ayesha Altugle, is an apothecary who makes and sells medicine, but for years she’s also been mourning her younger sister, Nio, who disappeared one day while gathering herbs in a nearby ruin. At the beginning of the game, Ayesha visits the grave built for Nio in the same ruins and sees a brief ghostly vision of her sister above the headstone.

She’s not sure what to make of this vision at first and thinks it might be a hallucination brought on by grief. However, a mysterious man named Keithgriff who happens to be examining the ruins at the same time tells her that her sister isn’t dead and can be returned to their world, but only if Ayesha studies the secrets of alchemy. Before leaving, he also tells her that she probably only has three years to save Nio before she’s lost forever (yes, that old time limit from the Arland series is back again.)

Of course, we already know Ayesha is at least a beginner alchemist. She’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, after all. In fact, Ayesha uses alchemy to make medicine using methods her grandfather taught her, but she doesn’t realize that she’s using alchemy and isn’t even familiar with the term at first. While alchemy is well-known in the world of Arland, in the Dusk series, it seems to be a nearly lost art remembered only by scholars and professionals who have had to piece it together from old reference books and the scraps of past knowledge.

Ayesha is now convinced that Nio is still alive somewhere, so lacking any other lead, she decides to place her trust in Keithgriff’s promises and sets out on a journey to start learning about alchemy and to meet a few old friends and a lot of new ones, all of whom can help her in various ways.

Pictured center, my combat MVP Linca, and right, best girl Marion, out on government business.

There’s not much more to the central story than that. Ayesha has three years to save her sister, and aside from taking on some odd jobs to make money and following character-specific side stories, that’s what you’ll spend this three years working towards. Making it to that goal doesn’t automatically end the game, however: you’ll still have your three years to play with no matter what, time that can be used to prepare for a much easier second run with the benefits that a new game plus provides (rolling over your equipped weapons/armor/accessories, equipped “adventure” items that help you save time while traveling around the map and collecting ingredients among other things, specialized alchemy bonuses, items registered in shops, and money.)

As in previous Atelier games I’ve played, this takes a bit of the sting off of a bad end, since it more or less guarantees you’ll get it right the second time assuming you’ve properly prepared by equipping all the necessary items and selling off all your other items and ingredients before that second cycle begins. While they’re all helpful, that money carryover is especially nice, since I was perpetually short of Cole my first playthrough. All those alchemy books are expensive, but you’re required to buy them to learn new recipes and make more effective items.

Ayesha, just finding out she’s graduated from medicine-maker to weapons manufacturer.

This is only the third Atelier game I’ve played, and the first outside of the Arland series, so it partly felt like revisiting an old series but partly like playing a new one. There are plenty of similarities between Ayesha and the Arland titles I’ve played other than the imposition of a time limit. As before, the alchemy system is a central part of the gameplay. Learning how to efficiently gather ingredients in the field and create healing, support, and attack items with useful attributes is vital to doing well, both in combat and in fulfilling the requests of the townspeople and travelers you’ll come across in the course of Ayesha’s journey. The game also uses a traditional JRPG-style turn-based combat system with the twist once again that the alchemist character Ayesha is the only one who can use items, giving her an extremely important support role in battle.

However, there are more than enough differences between the two sub-series I’ve found so far to make Ayesha feel like a fresh experience. While alchemy is again a critical part of the game, the system you’ll have to learn is very different, involving synthesis restrictions and bonuses and special abilities that weren’t present in the Arland games. Having to learn this new system of alchemy was a little jarring coming off of Meruru, but it was intuitive enough not to be annoying to figure out, and pretty soon I was used to it. It does feel more complex than the alchemy system in Arland, so new players might be slightly intimidated by all the point values and effects and all the other numbers that go into even the simplest synthesis, but the game also has tutorials to watch if you need anything clarified.

I promise this all makes sense once you have it down.

Another big difference in Ayesha and the Dusk trilogy as a whole is the artistic direction. Artist and character designer Hidari’s style has a very different feel from Mel Kishida’s, but I still like it a lot. The game’s world and characters as a whole feel less colorful than they did in Arland, but that fits in well with the dying world of Dusk, and it all still manages to look beautiful in its own right (though I do miss the visual novel-style character portraits during dialogue that we got throughout Arland, but those seem to be gone forever at this point. Maybe I’m just being behind the times here.)

And the characters are still colorful enough in the figurative sense, at least. Ayesha’s old and new friends alike are an interesting set of people of all kinds — miners, merchants, shopkeepers, shepherds, and government officials among others, all with their own quirks and their parts to play in the story. As in Rorona and Meruru, these supporting characters aren’t one-note types but feel sufficiently fleshed out, and there are plenty of entertaining side stories to play through while you take on the central tasks of improving your combat and alchemy skills and taking the necessary steps to find and rescue Nio.

All business in town goes through Marietta, and don’t forget it

It’s also worth noting one major positive I found in Ayesha that I felt to be an improvement in that “quality of life” area. When Keithgriff told Ayesha on day one that she’d have three years to save Nio, I knew exactly what that meant — you have three years to get this done, no exceptions. Meruru also had a strict three-year time limit to achieve its central goal, though with a two-year extension and a new target if you managed to achieve it in that period.

Princess Meruru’s goal of “show Dad I can help the kingdom through alchemy so he’ll let me do what I want with my life” was not quite as urgent or serious as Ayesha’s goal of “save my sister from the shadow realm”, but thankfully, Ayesha offsets this by being more forgiving. As before, traveling across the map between towns and field/dungeon areas eats up days, as does gathering ingredients in field areas and using these ingredients to synthesize new items at the workshop. But unlike Meruru, who had to return to Totori’s atelier to do all her alchemy, Ayesha gets to set up several ateliers all over the land, making it easier to manage her time. Battles in Ayesha also feel like they take a lot less time off of the clock than they did before, though I’d have to go back to play Meruru again to say that for sure.

A very early-game battle including Ayesha’s old friend Regina and her new friend Wilbell. Your party is capped at three members, your main character plus two extras as in earlier games. Remember to have Ayesha use those items in combat, because they make her life and yours a lot easier.

Really, as long as you don’t spend months running around in circles or synthesizing items you don’t need, it’s not too hard to reach your goal before time runs out. I had about eight months left on the calendar when I was finished, and my run was not an optimal first pass at the game by any means. I still don’t know if I’d say that Ayesha is necessarily the place to start for an Atelier newcomer who might not be comfortable with the time limit, since it can be a source of stress — I haven’t played any of them yet, but I understand that the later Mysterious trilogy and the Ryza games drop that element altogether. But Ayesha does feel more forgiving about time management than past games,* so I wouldn’t warn new players off of it either.

I used to be a bit bothered by the forced time management aspect of these games myself, but thinking about it now in a more positive light, that time limit can help keep you on track, focused on the central goal of the game. There’s no running around and carrying out lighthearted sidequests while the horrible impending apocalypse is indefinitely put on hold, as happens in so many non-linear RPGs. These PS3-era Atelier games are a bit more linear for that reason, but they don’t exactly shove you down a single track either; you still get to choose exactly how to achieve your goals. Hell, if you don’t mind getting a bad end and restarting with an easier second run, that’s an option too. Admittedly not an ideal one, but with how many endings they feature, these games are made to be played multiple times anyway, another aspect that sets them apart from most other JRPGs.

Ayesha out in the field near the end of Year 1. The calendar always starts on April 1 for some reason, so it will flip to Year 2 once March is done.

In any case, I was thankful for the relative leniency of Ayesha, even if that three-year time limit was never really explained very well (why three years exactly? It made sense in Meruru, but here it seems arbitrary. Maybe Keithgriff knows the reason and he’s just not telling us, which would be completely in character.) Though I still had to manage my time, I didn’t feel like I was on quite as short of a leash as I did when I was playing Meruru. I also didn’t feel the need to reload an old save this time thanks to some bullshit moving dungeon that contained an ingredient I didn’t realize I absolutely needed until it had already moved, causing me to lose a few in-game months that I couldn’t do without. While I generally don’t mind the time limits in the Atelier series so far, that absolutely pissed me off. Unlike Meruru, Ayesha didn’t fuck around with me in that manner, which I consider a plus.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the world of Arland a bit more, though part of that might have been seeing old characters I knew and liked from Rorona show up again. I wouldn’t say I have any real nostalgia for 2014, when I played my first Atelier game (it was also when I finished my first year at law school, which was an ordeal that I don’t have totally positive memories of) but it did add something to the experience. There also wasn’t nearly as much talk about making pie in Ayesha as there was in those older games, or any at all from what I remember. I’m more of a cake guy, but I like pie as well, and the inability to synthesize it in this game was a bit of a drawback.

These chicken pastry things are the closest you can get, and though they do look good, I don’t think they count as pies in the traditional sense.

Bullshit aside, Ayesha really did have a very different feel from the Arland games, but I enjoyed it more than enough to move on to the next game in the Dusk series. I own the entire Dusk trilogy in its deluxe package form on the PS4, and I plan to make it through the whole thing this year. That’s my hope, at least. I’ve heard especially good things about the following game Atelier Escha & Logy, which I’ve already started as of this writing, so I look forward to seeing how it measures up and how it carries on the wider story of the World of Dusk.

I’m also looking forward to hearing more of the series’ music. I’m already loving the jazz lounge class of Escha & Logy, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. Ayesha has an excellent soundtrack, anyway, which seems to be standard for the series. One of the songs, according to the composer’s notes in the game’s library, even features 17 Haruka Shimotsukis. If you know that name, you’ll instantly know the song I’m talking about when you hear it. 𒀭

 

*I’ve heard Totori is even more demanding with regard to the time limit, but again, I haven’t played it yet so I can’t say. Maybe once I get Japanese down well enough, I’ll try to play the original JP release. That could be an interesting measure of my skills, or possibly a slap in the face when I realize I still can’t read kanji beyond a second-grade level.

Deep reads #5.3: Getting personal with Persona

My post focusing on the Persona series is finally done. I still have more to go in this set of posts, though. Hopefully the next one won’t take three god damn months to write. A couple of general plot trends and minor spoilers in here, particularly about one confidant link in Persona 5, but aside from that, you can read without fear since this post deals generally with the modern Persona games, their themes, and how I’ve related to them. Sorry for getting so personal this time (that title isn’t just a dumb joke even if it looks like one) but I’m also interested in how you’ve related to these games if you’ve played them — the comments section is always open.

As before, I’ll also let you know that this is the third part of a series about Megami Tensei. If you want more context for this post, you can get it from the first part, but it’s not that necessary to understand what I’m talking about here.

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I don’t think it would be any shock to regular readers of this site if I admit that I’m not a very social person. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought my extreme introversion up before, in fact. It’s something I’ve mostly gotten past purely out of necessity, but I still much prefer to be alone most of the time.

Partly for this reason, my feelings about the Persona games are a bit complicated. On one hand, they provided my way into Megami Tensei as a whole — Persona 3 back in 2007 was the first MegaTen game I played, and I was hooked from my first time stumbling into the Dark Hour with the P3 protagonist up until today. Over the last 14 years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Persona 3, 4, 5, and their expansions alongside the mainline SMT games and other spinoff series I’ve explored. On the other hand, the Persona games alone among all the other MegaTen titles, starting with 3, combine the traditional demon-fighting JRPG mechanic of the series I like so much with a social sim, introducing extra depth and story for the characters along with some weird pacing issues that the series never had to deal with before. Persona wasn’t the first game series to take this approach, but it’s definitely been the most visible and commercially successful one to try it out, and this dungeon crawling RPG/social sim hybrid setup is now a series standard.

It didn’t start that way, though. Fans often acknowledge the 1994 Super Famicom title Shin Megami Tensei if… as the spiritual predecessor to the Persona series, since it was the first to take place in a high school setting and focus on a group of students. Like SMT if…, the first three actual Persona games, Megami Ibunroku Persona in 1996 and the two parts of the Persona 2 duology in 1998 and 1999, were more or less straightforward JRPGs. However, they did put a lot more emphasis their characters and the relationships between them than the mainline SMT games, which mainly focused on the broader story and had pretty thin character development.

Persona 3 inner cover art by Shigenori Soejima

This trend continued with Persona 3, which came out in 2006 in Japan and 2007 here in the States. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Megami Tensei or any of its already massive 20 year-long catalog, even though I was already deep into some JRPG series at the time. My future favorite game SMT III: Nocturne had been released in America a few years before but apparently without much commotion. But I did hear Persona 3 talked about around its release, probably because of its novelty over here as a hybrid RPG/social sim. Of course, back then people were calling it more of an RPG/dating sim, which was a pretty big simplification if an understandable one — the game does feature a dating mechanic, with five of your female classmates available for you to romantically pursue in the original game.

But although the dating might have been the flashiest feature in the game, there was a lot more to its social aspect than that. Persona 3 takes place in the city of Tatsumi Port Island, a nice seaside spot that’s been stricken with a condition called Apathy Syndrome, which causes its sufferers to sit around not caring about doing anything even to the extent that they can starve to death. The protagonist, a transfer high school student, soon learns that this strange condition is connected to the Dark Hour, a “hidden” hour that takes place at midnight every night and corresponds with the appearance of a giant tower called Tartarus that just happens to be at the same site as his new school, Gekkoukan High. Protagonist’s new dormmates are all in on the secret as well — he and they are some of the few who actually experience the Dark Hour, with everyone else suspended in time for that period and therefore left unaware of it.

You also all happen to possess the power of Persona, magical representations of your alter egos that have the ability to fight and defend against both human and otherworldly entities, up to and including gods. To me back in 2007, this was where the game really stood out. From the very beginning, when your unnamed1 main character enters his new dorm late at night and is approached by a mysterious ghostly boy who asks him to sign a shady-looking contract, there’s a strange, heavy atmosphere around the place. P3 doesn’t waste much time getting to the point — the protagonist is special; not only does he hold the power of Persona, but he’s also a “wild card”, meaning that unlike his friends, he can summon any number of Personas to fight for him.

“When you’re done with class today, do you want to get together and fight some shadow demons in the nightmare world only we can access?” “Sure, sounds good.” (Source, CC-BY-SA)

This all fits into the usual setup of Persona collection in battle and fusion in the Velvet Room, mechanics taken straight from the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series and adapted into this new format. However, Persona 3 adds that social aspect on top, allowing your protagonist to create bonds with his fellow students and certain people around town who are sorted into different Tarot Arcana categories that the Personas are also grouped into. By leveling up these “Social Links”, the player is able to make progress in battle through bonuses in fusion to the corresponding Arcana.

These links are often made with people you might not normally expect. Many of them are with your teammates and other school friends and colleagues, only natural considering that you’re all going through the horrible ordeal of high school together (and especially natural in the case of your fellow Persona-users, who also have to juggle school and social lives with fighting shadow demons in that nightmare world of Tartarus.) As you progress through the story, your bonds with your teammates in particular get stronger thanks to all the dangers you’ve gone through together trying to defeat the growing menace of the Dark Hour, but the same is true even for your bonds with other friends who don’t realize what you’re going through.

At some point in there, you also all had a shared dream about a dance competition one night. And yeah, this is part of the canon as far as I know.

As a result, the Persona games feel a lot more personal to me than others in the overarching Megami Tensei series. Like mainline SMT, they take place against apocalyptic backdrops with demon and shadow invasions of the human world and all that, but they also feature stories about individual struggles and the power of true friendship and love that help us break through them.

So then what’s an embittered, world-weary jerk like me doing enjoying games like this with such positive approaches to life? There’s a lot about the Persona series I like, and part of that has to do with its acknowledgement that even though the power of friendship can be great, life can also be profoundly, remorselessly, and unbelievably shitty. In fact, I think that’s part of why they emphasize the importance of forming bonds with others so much. Life doesn’t always work out in these games: broken bonds between characters aren’t always perfectly fixed, dilemmas aren’t always sorted out nicely by the end like they are in old sitcoms. And when a character dies, with a few major (and controversial) exceptions, they’re dead for good. So sometimes, there’s no happy ending — the resolution to a social link story might only consist of a character accepting and coming to some kind of peace with a less-than-ideal situation.

That’s something I can appreciate. As embittered as I am, I still don’t believe that humanity is all shit, that it’s just naturally evil or corrupt. I think this is a stance too often taken by hack writers and artists who think being dark automatically means you’re being deep. It’s both inaccurate and intellectually dishonest — it should be clear to anyone looking at it with a more honest approach that human nature isn’t nearly that simple. For the same reason, the other extreme of false optimism feels just as dishonest to me. Because yes, maybe life really is a wonderful gift that I should cherish. Yes, I know it only happens once,2 and I get that it was incredibly unlikely that it was going to happen to me, that I’d be given this opportunity. I can tell myself that all day, but it doesn’t change the fact that life sometimes feels like complete dogshit, a burden that I have to carry rather than a gift that I should be thankful for.

The social link rank-ups help, though.

I see a lot of this false optimism in the society I live in. As a way to cope with the hardships of life, I completely get it — if telling yourself all of the above really helps you make it through the day, I can’t criticize that. To me, though, that approach ignores a lot of the negative aspects of life that really cannot be overlooked if you’re trying to write personal stories like these. For the most part, the side stories that the Persona games tell strike a nice balance between these two extremes.3

And yeah, I am taking the tonal differences between the modern Persona games into account when I say that. Persona 3 is generally considered much darker and more pessimistic in tone than later Persona games, and that’s a characterization I’d agree with. However, even the later games feature some side stories that have somewhat sad or bittersweet endings. While there are probably better or more obvious examples to use here (the links with the terminally ill young man in Persona 3 and the widow in Persona 4 both come to mind) the one standout figure in this sense to me is Yuuki Mishima from Persona 5.

Mishima is one of your classmates who you meet during the game’s first story arc. He quickly becomes a devotee of the Phantom Thieves, the secret team the protagonist and his friends create when they realize they have the power to make criminals have changes of heart and confess their crimes through the typical Persona-using methods. He also figures out pretty early on that the protagonist and company are in fact the Phantom Thieves, after which he sets up a fan site where people can express their support and even suggest those who might need a change of heart. In this way, Mishima feeds the protagonist new target info while maintaining a “wink and nod” attitude about his secret identity.

All this is well and good, but a few scenes into Mishima’s social link, it becomes obvious that he’s starting to go on a power trip, taking some liberties with his influence as de facto leader of the Phantom Thieves online fan community. After he starts insisting that you target a popular male celebrity he’s jealous of, you and your friends decide to track down and give Mishima’s shadow self a visit. Finally, Mishima realizes he’s been an asshole and sincerely apologizes, maturing a bit and becoming somewhat more secure in his identity.

Even so, Mishima doesn’t exactly get what he wants by the end. What he really seemed to want was to be the protagonist himself, or at least a very visible hero of some kind. By using his newfound power, he tried to take the lead and have his own way and to achieve his own selfish ends, and he ends up getting rebuked for it. Mishima’s feelings are very understandable, at least to me — the character comes off as an outsider, a guy who’s seen as nice and pleasant enough but also a bit obsessive and irritating to others. He’s also something of a doormat, and this seems to be the source of his power trip, which starts when he feels he finally has some control and isn’t just being pushed around by everyone else. By the end of his social link, Mishima has grown a bit and gained some real backbone, but he’s still behind the scenes and hasn’t become the hero he wanted to be.

But that’s okay. Mishima accepts his place and commits to becoming a better person, even if he can’t have exactly what he wants. A lot of the other social link stories in the Persona series proceed along the same lines, ending with resolutions that aren’t usually totally happy for those involved but at least involve some new understanding and growth. I’ll admit that a few of these links fall flat, with characters who don’t feel very realistic or just aren’t all that appealing or sympathetic, and a few others that resolve themselves a little too neatly, but in general, they feel pretty satisfying in this sense.

I’ve even lightened up on my feelings about Marie a bit. Not much, though.

Most of the villains of the modern Persona games also fit pretty nicely into this framework. This is at least true for those who act as foils to the games’ protagonists. There are a very few other Persona-using characters who possess the same wild card ability as the protagonist, but typically they differ in that they use their powers for evil rather than good. That might sound pretty standard and boring, but I think there’s more to it than simply the “hey, I’m the story-appointed bad guy” stuff you’d expect from RPGs like these. The wild card ability carries great potential, represented by the protagonist’s place in the Tarot Arcana as the Fool, the card denoted by the number zero — here not a negative but rather a positive, meaning the protagonist can become anything he likes and use his ability to achieve things others can’t.

But not without the help of his friends and colleagues. This is the major difference between the Persona protagonists, who build relationships of trust with the people around them, and the antagonists who possess the same wild card ability but decide to reject these relationships, either because they’ve been burned in the past or because they feel they’re not getting their proper due from society. So they give in to feelings of bitterness, and ultimately they can’t achieve what the protagonists can for that reason.

At least that’s how I read it. Again, all this is a bit strange for me on a personal level, because I feel like I can identify with these antagonists sometimes a bit more than I can with the protagonists. Maybe it’s only natural, after all: I’m also a bitter person with an extremely skeptical view of society in general, and there’s nothing in the world I’d like to do more than escape from it all. But then again, that’s really not an option, and I have to admit that the antagonists in these games are selfish assholes — and as bitter as I feel sometimes, I never want to become one of those.

I can’t even bring myself to kill shadows or demons when they beg for their lives; that’s how soft I really am.

So despite what some people say, Persona isn’t all style and no substance, not even close. There is a whole lot of style to the series, though. A big part of this has to do with the music, which I already touched upon back in my first post. Shoji Meguro is the composer responsible for most of the music in these games. Aside from just generally writing excellent music, Meguro writes each soundtrack with its own character, so that one doesn’t sound much like the rest. Comparing the three mainline modern Persona games alone, Persona 3 has a strong rap sound with a lot of pop mixed in, Persona 4 is much more pop/rock-sounding, and Persona 5 goes heavy on 70s style funk and jazz. My personal favorite is 5 just because I’m into that style the most, but they’re all fantastic.

And then there’s artist Shigenori Soejima, who has done just as much as Meguro to define the feel of the modern Persona games. Soejima is one of my very favorite character designers, with a style distinct from Kazuma Kaneko’s but that still fits pretty well with Kaneko’s original work on the games’ many MegaTen demons. Even if you’ve never played Persona before, you may have seen Soejima’s work, since he’s also responsible for the art and character designs of Catherine and its PS4 expansion Catherine: Full Body. Though I can’t say I prefer one style over the other, I love his art — I don’t own both his artbooks for nothing.

The English versions of Soejima’s artbooks (left) seem to be extremely hard to find and expensive now, but used Japanese-language copies (right) are still going cheap on eBay. On the plus side, the Japanese copies are a bit nicer and sturdier, with protective transparent dust jackets that the English versions lack. At this point, if you’re interested, I think you’re a lot better off going for the Japanese ones even if you can’t read the text in them.

As for the shipping and waifu wars the modern Persona games have inspired thanks largely to that dating mechanic I mentioned, I don’t have anything to say about those. Have fun fighting on Twitter or Reddit over that dumb shit if you really feel like doing that. Not me — I will maintain as I always have that Aigis is best girl, not just in Persona 3 but throughout the part of the series I’ve played, but I respect your tastes completely no matter what they are. Even if you like that alcoholic journalist from Persona 5 the best. Yes, even Ohya is a fine choice. I’m not one to judge.

I also like Lisa Silverman a lot, but I haven’t finished Persona 2: Innocent Sin yet so I can’t make a definitive call on her yet.

And that’s really all I have to say about Persona, even though there is a lot more to say about it. I could write an entire set of posts dedicated to this spinoff series alone, or even to one of the games in it. But that’s not my goal here. Others have gone into great depth about Persona already, and I’m not sure I have that much more to add at this point, except to say that it’s a series worth getting into.

So next time, we’ll take a look at issues raised more by the mainline SMT series, specifically with matters of the divine, the human, and the very weird and complicated relationships between the two. Will I be condemned forever for my bizarre heresies? Probably! All the more reason not to follow my example, if reading this post didn’t convince you of that already. 𒀭

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1 The protagonists of these games do have official names, one taken from the manga adaptation and usually a different one for the anime and for later spinoff works. However, in true Megami Tensei fashion, Persona lets you name your protagonist whatever you want, so there is no official name at least as far as the games themselves go.

2 Unless you believe in reincarnation, and there are hints throughout Megami Tensei that it does exist in-universe, at least in a few cases.

3 I’ve seen it argued that Persona 5 leans too much towards the optimistic side, even more than the relatively bright and cheery Persona 4 does. I don’t think P5 goes too far myself, but I can understand these arguments, especially considering how easy it seems to be for Joker and co. to resolve their friends’ problems by changing people’s hearts in Mementos. I wouldn’t be surprised if Persona 6 takes a slightly darker turn again for that reason.

The Great JRPG Character Face-Off: My top five

Last month, Pix1001 at Shoot the Rookie and Winst0lf started a month-long battle to determine the greatest JRPG characters, to be conducted by both bloggers and commenters making lists of their top fives with explanations. And I thought, hell, I like JRPGs, so I’ll thrown my opinions in. This is a list I might have thought up, written, and posted during a slow month, but I’m happy that I can use it to contribute to a community event like this. Hell, I can make a top ten or twenty list, probably. Maybe one day. I’d probably end up shifting a lot of these characters around and bumping some out of the top five as well, so fair warning that I’d be completely inconsistent about it. Sorry in advance!

For now, here’s my list. Also, there are probably some very, very general character arc spoilers for each of them, because I couldn’t really find another way to explain my choices.

5) Lyner Barsett (Ar tonelico)

Lyner might be the densest JRPG protagonist ever created, so god damn dense he’s about to collapse into a black hole. He’s a powerful warrior and all, but he also has a “just rush ahead” approach that gets him into trouble. And when it comes to women, he’s hopeless, or at least he should be. Ar tonelico centers on the relationships he builds with the three Reyvateils Aurica, Misha, and Shurelia, all women who can harness and use magical powers through singing. Poor Lyner has to largely rely on his own wits to progress his relationships with them to improve their compatibility in battle, and he will end up romantically involved with one of them in the end. That’s left to the player, so there is no “right” choice (the right choice is Shurelia, though. It’s Shurelia.)

Misha’s fine too, I guess. As long as it’s not Aurica.

What’s amazing is that he doesn’t strike out with all of them, because Lyner is an absolute dumbass. At one point late in the game, he and his party see a powerful forcefield that they can’t get past, and Lyner acknowledges it, and then he walks right the fuck into it getting hurt. When the other characters ask him what he was thinking, he can’t really explain himself very well other than to say he just likes to run straight ahead or something similar. You can’t just run straight through obstacles sometimes, Lyner. Lucky thing that he has women around him who are smart, and also Aurica.

So maybe it’s weird that I’m putting Lyner on this list. There was a time when he just irritated me. But now I can respect his drive, sincerity, and strong sense of morality. He’s a dense fucker, but he’s also a genuinely good guy, and one who gets thrown into a bad situation and has to make the best of things. Fellow protagonist Croix Bartel from Ar tonelico II is also a great character and a lot more capable, but it’s just that capability that puts him lower on the list of characters from #6 down that I’m not making. Croix also has a little sister to help him out in addition to his own set of Reyvateil companions. Those are advantages that Lyner doesn’t have, yet he makes it through all the same. Good man.

4) Etna (Disgaea series)

Make no mistake: even if Etna is one of my favorite JRPG characters, she’s probably not someone I’d want to know, and she’s certainly not someone I’d want for a boss. I’m not nearly that much of a masochist.

But Etna is still a great character. This prickly, vain demon girl was introduced by Nippon Ichi to the world in Disgaea 1 back in 2003, in which she was the “loyal” vassal to the young hotheaded prince and protagonist Laharl. Not really that loyal, of course — she’s extremely ambitious, and Laharl keeps a close eye on her. Etna also seems to enjoy beating up on the Prinnies, her penguin-esque servants who contain the souls of dead human sinners working off their debts in the afterlife. So she is pretty treacherous and mean on the surface, but as the story progresses, we learn that she does have a caring side to her. She loves to mock and needle Laharl, but she’s also genuinely invested in his becoming a great and caring leader in the mold of his deceased father, a man she sincerely respected.

If it weren’t for that other side of her, Etna would simply come off as sadistic and kind of annoying, but she does have her caring and forgiving sides, even towards those Prinnies she hauls around. She’s also carefree enough to make friends with humans and angels when they blunder their ways into the Netherworld. Etna pretty much does what she wants, and while she pretends to be evil, her whims usually lead her in the right direction. Eventually, anyway.

3) Ryudo (Grandia II)

I always like a character who can make light of a bad situation. Ryudo is the mercenary protagonist of the classic Dreamcast JRPG Grandia II, and he makes this list thanks in part to his dark sense of humor and his frequent quips. Like the other characters on this list, Ryudo really is a good guy, but he also buries his sense of honor deep under a thick layer of sarcasm. By putting up a bitter, jaded front, he tries to protect himself. His talking bird partner Skye sees right through it and calls him out occasionally, but it isn’t really until Ryudo takes a job with the big church organization to protect the nun Elena that that shell starts to break. That emotional front is something that helps me connect with this character, even if I wouldn’t last five seconds in the kinds of battles he gets into in Grandia II.

Bread and coffee and nothing else at every meal, that’s Ryudo’s way. I can respect it, though I’d prefer to have Mareg’s dinner (the beast guy on the far right.)

Grandia II doesn’t have the most original plot, and a lot of the story beats and especially the big twist at the end can be seen coming from very far away, especially by players who are used to standard JRPG tropes. I still really like the game’s characters, though. The game builds a real sense of camaraderie, especially during its dinner conversation scenes in which the character make small talk. Why don’t more games include those?

2) Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

If this were a top list of JRPG characters who are unlucky in love, Esty would absolutely be my #1 choice. We meet Esty early on in Atelier Rorona — she’s a bureaucrat for the Kingdom of Arland and helps the alchemist player character Rorona fill orders. She’s also a knight, however, and together with her fellow knight-bureaucrat Sterkenburg, she can join Rorona while in the field hunting for ingredients and fighting monsters.

Esty makes the list mainly for her dedication to her work paired with her somewhat carefree attitude. She makes a great pair with Sterk, a bulky knight who’s extremely serious most of the time. Unfortunately, her work doesn’t leave her much time for relationships, so when she shows up in the third Arland game Atelier Meruru, still single, she’s a bit on edge about it. But not enough on edge that she isn’t still one of the best characters in the game to take along into the field. Esty’s balance between serious dutifulness and relaxation is something to admire, especially when she shows up in Meruru to encourage/intimidate her younger sister Filly.

Moments later, a sword is ready to be pulled.

And yes, it’s Esty Erhard. That’s her last name in the JP versions of these games. No, I’m not just being a big weeb here as usual: the localizers at NISA changed it from Erhard to “Dee” to create a hilarious joke. Esty Dee. Get it?!?!?! Truly, they can fuck off. I like Esty. She’s honestly one of the most likeable characters in these games, which is saying quite a lot. If Atelier games had Persona-style dating sim mechanics, she’s the one I’d go for, absolutely no question. There, now someone can go on Twitter and call me a simp for Esty, or whatever the stupid term is they’re using now.

1) Aigis (Persona 3)

Once again, no surprise here. Aigis is certainly one of my favorite game characters period, largely for her character arc in Persona 3. A weapon created to fight Shadows, Aigis goes through the old “android discovers human feelings and love” plot but in a way that isn’t nearly as tired and cliché as that might sound. I can’t say much more about why Aigis is so great without posting major spoilers for Persona 3, though, so I’ll leave it at that. Just play Persona 3, either FES or Portable — I preferred FES, but they’re both good choices.

I do hope this isn’t considered a cop-out to excuse me not being able to explain myself. If WordPress had spoiler tags, I’d use them, but it doesn’t. So blame WordPress. Hey, WordPress admins, maybe consider adding spoiler tag solutions that also work in the Reader/don’t require a plugin or a paid subscription to use? A lot of us write about fictional works on your platform if you haven’t noticed.

Those are my entries. If you also want to join the party, be sure to check out the links at the top of the page. These community events are a nice break for me, and I hope they continue to catch on.

A review of Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland (PS4)

Years ago, to take my mind off of my extremely irritating studies, I bought a digital copy of Atelier Rorona Plus for the Vita. This was my very first Atelier game, and though I liked its unique style quite a lot, I never got around to playing any of the other Atelier games. Not until I dropped part of my tax refund this year on Atelier Meruru DX, a deluxe PS4 edition of the original Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland on the PS3.

I really like to think that some mom in a Gamestop bought her princess-obsessed kid this game based on the cover, but then it turns out to be all about a princess dealing with bureaucratic deadlines and resource management.

Meruru is the final game in the Arland trilogy, a sub-series of the much larger long-running JRPG Atelier series made by the Japanese developer Gust. While the Arland trilogy shares the central alchemy mechanic in common with the rest of the Atelier games, it also has its own identity distinct from the others.

But first a catch-up on the characters and plot. The protagonist, Merurulince Rede Arls, is the daughter and only child of Lord Dessier, the King of Arls. Somehow this tiny podunk town, population 1,000, counts as a kingdom and has a king with a giant stone castle, but we can’t question that too much. In any case, all that’s about to change.

Princess Merurulince, or Meruru to her friends, constantly shirks her royal duties to practice alchemy under the direction of her teacher, the master alchemist Totooria Helmold. Meruru doesn’t like being a princess, and she reasons that since their tiny kingdom is going to be merged into the far larger Arland Republic in five years, upholding her royal duties doesn’t matter that much anyway. Even so, her dad understandably isn’t too keen on his daughter studying a trade that requires hunting for ingredients in the wilderness, killing monsters, and working with potent poisons and explosive fuels.

However, Meruru won’t back down, so the king’s butler Rufus proposes a compromise that they both accept: if Meruru can use her alchemy skills to increase the population of Arls to 30,000 within three years, Dessier will allow her to become a full-time alchemist.

The stamp makes it official

So while Dessier sits his royal ass on his throne for three years, he leaves it up to his teenage daughter to actually do all the work to strengthen the kingdom. Some king he is, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Meruru (meaning the player) must find some way to increase the population of Arls to thirty times its original size while also maintaining her popularity among the people, otherwise it’s a game over and a bad end.

Thankfully, Meruru isn’t left alone in her efforts. She first gets help from an unexpected place: the castle itself, represented by Rufus. Though he calls himself a butler, he’s really more of a chief advisor and minister to Dessier, and he takes his job extremely seriously — a single needle can’t drop in Arls without Rufus knowing about it. He’s also serious about the development plan he proposed. When Meruru receives requests from the citizens to develop new patches of wilderness or to clear up monster-infested areas, Rufus creates plans for the princess to carry out that will variously open new areas for exploration, increase her popularity, and bump up the kingdom’s population. As Meruru fulfills these goals she also gains points that can be used to build new facilities, bringing even greater population increases and other various benefits.

And of course, the princess doesn’t have to go off gathering alchemy ingredients and killing monsters all by herself, because she has plenty of friends to help her. These include both new characters native to Arls and returning characters from the two previous Arland games, and some of them can be recruited to join Meruru’s party in battle while she explores the various fields, forests, and mountains of the surrounding country. Each of these characters has a different combat style: some are more defensive and supportive like Meruru’s childhood friend/chief maid Keina, while others are offensive like the warrior Lias. They also have very different attack ranges and skills, so no one character plays quite like another, which adds some nice variety (even if it means that some characters kind of suck in battle when compared to others.)

And then of course there are the other alchemist characters. The Arland series specifically features a chain of masters and apprentices continuing from game to game starting with Atelier Rorona, in which Rorona is the player character and apprentice (which you can read about in my very old, completely inadequate review of that game.) In the second game of the series, Atelier Totori, the main character Totori is apprenticed to Rorona, who has become a renowned master of alchemy, though still exactly as clumsy and ditzy as she’s always been.

Totori joining up to kill some wolves in the mountains

Carrying on that tradition, Meruru is now apprenticed to the master Totori. As such, a lot of Meruru’s time is going to be spent in the atelier crafting items using the ingredients she finds in the field and after battles while under Totori’s supervision. Though the Atelier games are turn-based JRPGs, they’re very different from the typical sort of JRPG, and part of this difference comes from the all-important alchemy mechanic. The alchemists in these games are special because they alone have the ability to craft and use items that do everything from heal allies’ wounds to destroying the shit out of enemies, making them potentially very powerful.

This unique gameplay feature adds quite a lot of variety to the game by letting the player mess around with ingredients that have different qualities and traits. One of the most fun aspects of the Atelier games is experimenting with new mixes to see what works and what doesn’t, and the games generally give the player leeway to try new things out. Because as with the other Atelier games, alchemy in Meruru isn’t a mere crafting system: it’s practically a science in itself. For a while, you’ll see traits passed on through synthesis that you have no idea of, there are so damn many of them. Players who commit themselves to getting alchemy down can make truly amazing items, however, and that’s part of the satisfaction that playing Meruru provided me.

Once the princess learns how to synthesize weapons and armaments, that mom realizes this game wasn’t quite what she expected

You might have noticed that I haven’t elaborated on the plot a whole lot beyond the basic premise, and that’s because there isn’t much of one. Certainly unusual for a JRPG, which tend to be very plot-heavy, but in Meruru there are no world-ending comets or plagues or any magic crystals to take away from an evil overlord. There isn’t exactly any villain in this game at all, at least not in the way we’d normally understand it. Meruru’s big goal is simply to be allowed to practice alchemy, nothing more or less, so that motivation is the central force driving the plot.

This is an element of Atelier Meruru that may put some players off, but I don’t really care about it. In fact, it’s nice to play a JRPG (hell, an RPG at all) for once that doesn’t have a great evil emperor pretending to be the big villain with a greater evil god or god-controlled lieutenant of the emperor behind him as the true villain. If you want that, you can get enough of it out of Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and as much as I like it yes, Megami Tensei too. The conflicts faced by the protagonists in the Arland series are much more personal — saving your small business from being closed by a corrupt government minister, finding your missing mother, and in the case of Meruru simply not fitting the mold you were intended for.

Offtopic but I like that thing Totori wears on her head, whatever that’s supposed to be

That’s not to say there is no villain at all in Atelier Meruru. I’m not talking about the boss battles you have to fight, or even about that lazy bastard Lord Dessier. No, the villain in Meruru is far greater than any of those: it’s the calendar, or more broadly time itself. When you’re given the three-year time limit arrangement at the beginning of the game, you might be thinking “Okay, three years. That’s a long time. This will be easy!” And then it’s very easy to start getting sidetracked by going on journeys through the countryside and freely doing alchemy. Of course, you’ll notice that time is ticking down as you proceed — traveling, gathering items and getting into battles in the field, and synthesizing items in the atelier all take parts of days or full days to complete depending on the size of the task in question. But no, three years is plenty of time, right?

Hey, look at this fortress we built all thanks to alchemy. We’re doing fine, Meruru! No need to worry about that stupid time limit.

When I played Rorona years ago, I remember Rorona having deadlines to fulfill certain tasks or else she’d get a bad end, but I don’t remember ever having to worry very much about meeting those deadlines. They seemed easy enough to fulfill while playing the game pretty naturally. So I went into Meruru with the same mindset, and it turned out to be the wrong one. It might be my fault for not realizing that it’s a lot easier to gauge your progress towards a one- or three-month deadline than it is towards a three-year one. Still, I got legitimately pissed off at one point when a certain event occurred that I wasn’t expecting, causing me to have to waste extra months running back and forth from a distant area to acquire an item necessary to a development quest. It’s a good thing I make several saves, because when this event occurred I didn’t even know how absolutely fucked I was until a few months later when I realized I couldn’t synthesize what I needed in time to meet the three-year population deadline. So I did something I normally don’t — I reloaded an old save.

Maybe some people would consider that cheap, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t pour hours into a game like this to get a bad end and get kicked back to the beginning of year one. I’m a busy man with a life outside of these games. Anyway, if the game wanted me to commit to a single straight-through run, it wouldn’t have given me multiple save slots. I highly suggest you use at least a few of them unless you’re the type to fully commit to one run without reloading no matter how badly you might screw up. I have respect for people who commit in that way, but hell if I’m one of them myself. The key in this case, as far as I’m concerned, is that the game gave me no reason to believe that I needed to take a certain action before an arbitrary date. Looking back, Meruru did drop a hint of what I should have done, but it turned out to be the kind of hint that you only see in retrospect. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I have made a lot of terrible real life decisions, so perhaps that’s more likely.

I don’t know if nectar calms your nerves, but I might need a glass after that bullshit.

Without spoiling anything, my general advice to new players is to trust your instincts: if the game seems to be suggesting that maybe you should check something out and it won’t take you too much time to do so, go and check it out and gather what ingredients you can, because you might need them. If the game is giving you a tool to use, say by bringing a new shopkeeper into town who offers a unique service, you should try using it as soon as possible. You should also be fulfilling requests at the tavern on a regular basis, if possible with high-quality items, to keep Meruru’s popularity up and to make extra money, because you can never have too much of either.

Even with all the time pressure, it’s hard to get too mad at Meruru. The game is just too damn positive, cute, and friendly. A lot of this has to do with the game’s style. Every entry in the Arland trilogy features character and background art by the excellent Mel Kishida. The sheer amount of detail in the character portraits and CGs alone make the game worth looking at even for people who aren’t so into turn-based JRPG stuff. I’m not sure if he’s also responsible for the item illustrations, but whether it’s him or someone else, the work on those is even amazing, all the more so because there are hundreds of ingredients and synthesized items in the game.

Playing this game actually made me hungry at times. If only I knew how to bake, damn.

I also have to mention the game’s beautiful soundtrack. I don’t hear Atelier get mentioned too often when it comes to game soundtracks, and to be fair I haven’t mentioned it either, but now I’ll give these composers their dues, because both Rorona and Meruru, and I have to assume probably Totori as well, feature a wide variety of music that’s all suited for fighting in battle, gathering ingredients in the field, running around in town, and working in the atelier. From what I’ve heard of the following Dusk trilogy in the Atelier series, that quality of music continues on as well.

The game also gives the player plenty of time to relax with dialogue cutscenes that come up throughout the game without any prompting. A lot of these involve characters from the previous two games in the Arland series. Though it helps provide context if you’ve played those games, it’s not necessary to understanding what’s going on. I’m in a bit of a weird position since I’ve played the first game in the series but not the second, so while old faces returning from Rorona are familiar to me, those from Totori aren’t. But again, it doesn’t matter that much. In fact, if you start off playing Meruru before the others, you’ll be in the same position as Meruru herself, who’s meeting all these recurring characters aside from Totori for the first time.

Totori having a flashback to her own game.

Of course, all these character interactions wouldn’t be so fun if the characters were all two-dimensional cardboard cutout types, and they aren’t. Some of them are a bit exaggerated in their weird traits, but almost all of them feel more or less like people who you might know in real life (well okay, maybe not Pamela, but I did say almost.) Series with a lot of characters like this tend to give their secondary characters very little detail, usually with only one broad trait and absolutely nothing else, but the Arland games take that extra step to make them feel a little more fleshed out. Maybe because they contain dialogue and slice-of-life style chatter in place of that big serious plot.

This aspect of the series is more obvious with the main characters. The protagonist here is a great example — although Meruru gets along well with her teacher Totori, the two have very different personalities: while Totori is careful and meticulous, Meruru tends to jump into new, potentially dangerous situations without thinking too much about it. And this balance works: Meruru, despite not really wanting to be a princess, accepts her role as a leader for her people and uses alchemy to help them thanks in part to her more level-headed teacher’s guidance. The alchemists central to the games’ plots are all very different kinds of people, but they manage to work together to create amazing machines and objects to help their friends and fellow citizens, and isn’t that what life is all about?

So this might be a pretty obvious conclusion to this review since I’ve been mostly gushing over how good it is, but do I recommend Atelier Meruru? I do, especially if you’re into the kind of obsessive collecting that I am, because unlocking new items to create through alchemy fulfills that weird need I have very well. I don’t know how it measures up to any of the other games aside from Rorona, but it  measures up to that game pretty well even if I still feel like Meruru was quite a bit bullshittier in parts. But again, I’m pretty forgiving of that. Maybe too forgiving. It’s that damn bishoujo style Kishida draws — I would not have accepted this nonsense from a less cute game. There is also plenty of game content left after your three years is up assuming you don’t get a bad end, so that adds some slightly more relaxed time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. And as with the other Arland games you get some benefits from a new game plus, making successive runs quite a bit easier to manage if you decide to go after some of the game’s hardest challenges or see new endings.

As for which version of Meruru you should buy, the only one I’ve played is the DX version on the PS4, which runs well and contains some DLC costumes and recruitable characters who weren’t in the original. There are also DX versions on the Switch and PC, and those are probably fine as well, but not having played them I can’t say whether they might have some technical issues. If you’re the kind of true patrician who owns a Vita, there’s also Meruru Plus, which is probably also fine to play if it’s anything like Rorona Plus, but again, I can’t really say. Just buy whichever one suits you best.

I don’t own Meruru Plus, but here’s a screenshot from my very own Vita copy of Rorona Plus if you want a general comparison. Why do I have so much high-grade perfume? I don’t know, but Pamela seems happy about it.

As a side note, the Atelier games in general still seem to be in a bit of a weird niche area, though the series may be branching out to a new audience now. All of the more modern games have been localized, but the series as a whole seems to have gone largely unnoticed outside of the usual weeb circles up until the most recent game Atelier Ryza, which attracted some new players thanks to Ryza’s, let’s say “generous” character model. But so much the better. I know some people feel that bringing in more fans can “ruin” a series or whatever (just have a look at any Persona-oriented board for some of that) but more fans mean more exposure for the series in question, and that probably isn’t such a bad thing. It also means more people get to appreciate these quality works, and I don’t see how anyone could object to that. 𒀭

Other Megami Tensei games I’d like to see released for PC

This is a first: the second post in a row I’m making in response to a current event in the world of gaming. I promise this isn’t turning into a news site. However, the sudden release of Persona 4 Golden on Steam was a shock to almost everyone who cared about it, including me. I don’t have much to say about it, though, except it’s an excellent game that you should buy if you haven’t played it yet, but also that it comes with Denuvo built in which is a real pain in the ass not to mention a show of poor faith. I won’t be buying it yet, but that’s because I have a Vita in good working condition and several savefiles on my P4G card that I can go back to at any time and I absolutely need to finish Persona 5 Royal first. It makes sense that P4G is the first Megaten game to get a non-Japanese PC release, since just about nobody over here bought a Vita aside from me and maybe a dozen other people. And hell, the game is good enough that the Denuvo thing probably won’t matter to you.

No, that’s not what I’m talking about today. Since the door to Megaten PC ports is cracked now, let’s push it wide open. There are several other of these games I would love to see released on PC, so if anyone from Atlus is reading this, here’s my wishlist in order of what I want to see. Please note these aren’t based on what I think Atlus would be most likely to release but only on my preferences, so as usual I’m indulging in wishful thinking. On to the list:

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

No surprise here, right? Nocturne is my favorite Megaten game and near the top of my favorite games list, whatever that would be. Yet it’s only ever been released for the PS2. It doesn’t seem like a PC port of Nocturne would be hard at all to make considering it’s now 17 years old. It would also make for a fine introduction to the mainline SMT series for new fans who have only played Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden so far.

Look, it even has dating, just like Persona. Well, sort of.

If I’m being greedy, I’d ask for the JP-only Chronicle Edition that replaces Dante with Raidou Kuzunoha, but people love their Dante from the Devil May Cry series so I know that won’t happen. Leave it to the modders to insert him later.

Persona 3 FES

This one is a lot more realistic than getting either Nocturne on PC or the complete Persona 5-style Persona 3 overhaul people keep clamoring for. A P3 port is the logical next step for Atlus to take after P4G: it’s a game that a lot of new fans haven’t experienced yet, but it’s still close enough to the newer Persona games in style that those fans won’t be put off.

I do think it’s more likely that we’d get the PSP-only Persona 3 Portable instead if only because of how popular its unique female protagonist option is. I’d still prefer FESPortable is sort of a “demake” anyway and lacks some of the features of FES, and most PCs would be able to handle FES in any case. However, the Answer section of FES is a character-destroying pile of shit, so maybe Portable would be better. But then again, you don’t really have to play the Answer if you get FES anyway, so maybe that doesn’t matter. I guess I’m torn over this one.

Persona 2

Both parts. Persona 2 has had a very weird history of western releases — we first only got Eternal Punishment, the second part of the two-part series, for PSX, then we got a port of the first part, Innocent Sin, on PSP but not Eternal Punishment on that system. It would be great to have a package including both games on PC, because the stories are supposed to be excellent in contrast with some quite honestly shitty gameplay and fusion mechanics. Maybe I’d actually get back to playing Innocent Sin again and suffering through that for the sake of the story. Once I beat Royal I’ll have 12 years to wait until Persona 6 comes out anyway.

Seriously though why would you give us each half of the duology on a different system and the second one years before the first, what the hell? I think they’re sadists.

Shin Megami Tensei I and II

I believe these are far less likely to be ported than Nocturne even, and for pretty obvious reasons: they’re a lot older and don’t contain any quality of life features, and II has never even received an official localization. And the localization of I was only for iOS for some fucking reason. But I’d still like to see these translated and ported, preferably in their slightly newer and more updated PSX remake forms. More complete overhauls would also be appreciated, but we’re already so deep in the unlikely zone at this point that I know that’s way too much to hope for. I’d rather hear news about Shin Megami Tensei V than about remakes of and II anyway.

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There are plenty of other games that would be great to see released as ports on Steam like Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2, the PS2 Devil Summoner games, and SMT if…. However, the games I think we’re by far most likely to see are one of the two later versions of Persona 3 and any of the Persona spinoffs games they can cram onto Steam like the 3/4/5 dancing games and the Arena fighting games. Persona is the cash cow, after all. Or maybe we’ll really luck out and only get ports of obscure games that even most “serious” Megami Tensei fans don’t care about like Demikids and Last Bible. Only time will tell, but I’ll remain hopeful that we get something more on PC at least, because there are quite a few games in the series only playable on old consoles now that could use new life.

Enough of my complaints. Next time it will be back to business as usual. I already have some reviews and commentaries planned for the next few months — planning ahead, something I almost never do here. All this extra time staying at home has really paid off. But if Atlus surprises us with a Steam port of Nocturne, I’ll probably also be running an extremely detailed, tedious beat-by-beat playthrough of that game here. So maybe you should hope that doesn’t happen.

Persona 5 Royal: First impressions and predictions

Yes. One week after everyone else has posted their full reviews of Persona 5 Royal, I’m making this bullshit post that’s going to be completely useless because I’ve only gotten through two in-game months to the third chapter, probably a quarter of the way through the game. But it’s a major Megami Tensei release, so of course I need to say something about it already. However, I promise that this is all I’ll say about the game until I finish it in a few months or however long it takes, and that next post I’ll write something that people might actually want to read. This might all be complete nonsense to you if you haven’t already played Persona 5, so for those who don’t know about it, the series involves high school students coming of age as they discover magical abilities and fight monsters in shadow worlds that are manifestations of human feelings — in this case, “Palaces” in which the player has to steal the corrupt desires of villains, thus forcing them to confess their sins in real life. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s because it’s honestly a bit of a weird concept, but I think it works.

Before I go into my scattered, unorganized thoughts about it, here’s my general judgment of the game so far: it’s definitely worth getting if you haven’t played the original Persona 5 or if you have and you loved it so much that you need more of it. If you’ve played P5 but didn’t care for it, either because you didn’t like the characters or plot or you just can’t stand turn-based RPGs, I don’t yet see this expanded version of the game changing your mind. I’m not too far into it, hence the “yet” there. It seems to have added some of those “quality of life” features that are so popular these days, and maybe the new characters and confidant links are amazing enough to bump P5 up to an 11 out of 10. Seems doubtful, though, since the core of the game feels the same as before.

What first jumped out at me about P5R, before it even began, is that “merciless mode” has been unlocked after only being available as DLC in the original Persona 5. I don’t recommend playing the game in this super-hard mode unless you really like frustration and crying. Some people do, and those people probably also add special challenge conditions of their own like playing without buffs or debuffs or beating the game with the default lvl 1 player Persona. I’m not one of those people.

The Velvet Room doesn’t seem to have changed much. There are some new Personas, including unique character-linked Personas from Persona 3 and 4 like Orpheus, Izanagi, and even Marie’s Kaguya from P4 Golden. There are also probably a few new fusion features that I haven’t gotten to yet. But the Velvet Room is still staffed by Igor and the twin sister wardens Justine and Caroline, who look like kids wearing French gendarme costumes for Halloween. In fact, there are a few other French-themed elements to Persona 5: Justine and Caroline fuse your Personas by “executing” them with guillotines, and at least three of your character-linked Personas in this game are characters from French works of fiction (Arsène Lupin, Carmen, and Milady from Three Musketeers.) I still don’t really get how the French thing ties into the main point of the game, but maybe the designers just thought it was cool.

The basics of combat in the game haven’t changed much either, but there are a few new additions to the mechanics. Occasionally you’ll run into a “disaster shadow”, a normal demon that explodes and deals damage to its own allies when you kill it. It also automatically counters every attack, but this really feels like it makes combat easier so far as long as you have enough variety of skills in your party to hit most every possible enemy weakness.

Even demon negotiation feels more forgiving now, with Morgana giving you constant advice on how to talk to demons to convince them to join you. All this could just be my imagination, or because the last Megaten game I played much of was Strange Journey Redux, which constantly punishes the player for even trying to play it. With the demon negotiations in that game, you may as well blindfold yourself and press a random answer to their questions because I swear they are randomized.

This time around, talking to a demon you already have a contract with to become your Persona can get that Persona extra experience, which is nice if you’re grinding up specifically to learn a new skill. I don’t remember this feature being in P5 vanilla, though it might have been and I forgot about it. A lot’s happened over the last few years.

There have also been a few dungeon redesigns, including the addition of “Will Seeds”, three in each Palace. These are supposed to be the seeds of the Palace owner’s negative feelings or something, I don’t know. The point is that collecting one slightly restores your SP, which is really useful in a game where SP-restoring items take time and effort to collect. Collecting all three Will Seeds also gets you a special item, so it’s worth scouting out every corner of each Palace to get them.

The game is also nice enough to include most of the cosmetic DLC from Persona 5 for free, though Atlus has still put together a nice hefty-priced DLC package for the new character Kasumi. I would say fuck that cash-grab bullshit, but I did buy the P3 and P5 dancing games, so I’ve supported them in that and can’t really talk. Anyway, here’s our starting lineup of Phantom Thieves mostly dressed as samurai from Shin Megami Tensei IV (and Morgana in a Persona 2-themed costume, a reference that I guess a lot of players aren’t going to get.) I love this combination samurai/colonial-era pirate sort of outfit — I’d wear it myself if I had one and wouldn’t be treated as a crazy person when I went outside.

Another nice thing about these Megaten universe costumes is that the battle theme changes based upon which one the protagonist is wearing, so if you really love hearing “BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY” every time you start a battle, you can put him in the Gekkoukan High uniform from Persona 3. I’ve had enough of that song to fill fifty lifetimes myself.

And of course the randomized dungeon Mementos is still here, with a new resident this time: Jose, who looks like some kind of robot boy. This kid hangs out in Mementos and will accept flowers that you collect by driving around these floors in exchange for items, including SP restoratives. In fact, restoring SP seems easier in P5R between Jose and the Will Seeds, which means you’ll likely be able to grind out a full Palace (or the full section that the story will allow you to play before moving the plot along) in one day, which means more time to work on those Confidant Links and social stats.

Speaking of that, let’s leave the world of demons and shadows and visit the real world for a while, since the Persona series is split between the two. Shibuya Station in Persona 5 is really nicely detailed, complete with slumped-over depressed-looking salarymen going to work. I’ve never been to Tokyo, but the parts that are depicted in this game look and feel like real places. I guess the trains in the city are pretty confusing as well, because it’s easy to get lost in here, with all its corridors, staircases, and ticket gates. The protagonist has been sent to Tokyo from the countryside at the start of the game, so if you’re confused by these labyrinthine train station layouts, that’s probably just what the makers intended.

Naturally your protagonist still has to keep up with his studies since he’s a high school student, so you’ll have to answer classroom questions on occasion and take exams. You get actual benefits from acing your exams, so it’s worth taking the time out to study, and the Knowledge stat is useful for other gameplay-related reasons. And you get to learn some useful facts too, including the name of the ukiyo-e artist who moved his residence over 100 times in his life (Katsushika Hokusai.)

The shadow demon-filled Palaces might be dangerous, but high school can be dangerous too. Thankfully, protagonist is not the object of Creepy Female Student’s creepy desires. He has more than enough on his plate without having to deal with yandere love.

This real-world half of the game contains plenty of reminders that it’s pretty damn Japanese. Of course, it was made by a Japanese developer and takes place in Tokyo, so that’s obvious. I’m talking on a more fundamental level. In the above screenshot, for example, we’re getting chewed out by the student council president, something that nobody would ever give a shit about in my own country where student government has just about no impact aside from maybe arranging dances. Makoto here seems to take her role a lot more seriously than that. The ultra-serious student council is common enough in these school-setting games and anime series that I think it must actually be a huge deal in Japan, but it certainly doesn’t line up with my experience as a student in the US. Or maybe I was always just too lazy to bother with student government myself and too apathetic to care about it.

And while the game’s plot involves fighting against a corrupt society, which is sadly something that we can all relate to on some level, I get the feeling that a lot of the details are particular to Japan. Ann’s story is a good example: a couple of friends who played the original JP release of Persona 5 told me that her confidant link was partly rewritten to remove references to her being discriminated against for being mixed-race (why Atlus USA might have done that I don’t know.) I’ve also heard one of the major villains in the game is supposed to be a stand-in for Shinzo Abe, the then- and still-current prime minister of Japan, and if that’s true then Abe must be a real asshole. But since I don’t have the Japanese perspective, a lot of that would necessarily go over my head.

That said, I’m pretty sure that vending machines in Japan don’t contain drinks blended with placenta. Hopefully it’s not human placenta, at least. Even so, you’ll damn well be buying these sodas, because even with the extra SP items included in Royal, you can never have too much of them in reserve.

Back at Shibuya Station. If you played Persona 4, here’s a face you should recognize: it’s Rise Kujikawa. And she has a new single out, so I guess she returned to the pop idol life after retiring in P4. This ad alternates with one for a single by Kanami Mashita, who we met in Persona 4: Dancing All Night. I’m pretty sure there are other Persona 4 references around, and maybe even a couple of Persona 3 ones, but I haven’t seen those yet. If you were hoping to see any Persona 1 or 2 references outside of the costume DLC, I’m sorry.

But how about the new characters? Persona 5 Royal adds two totally new characters with their own Confidant Links and new corresponding arcana. The first you make a connection with is Dr. Maruki, a school counselor brought in after the end of the first chapter for reasons that will become obvious at that point. Talking to Maruki provides you with increased SP and SP-regenerative techniques, giving you even more stamina while fighting through the Palaces. He also seems like a genuinely nice guy — and that’s why I suspect that he’s really a villain. These slightly eccentric, absent-minded characters always turn out to be putting on an act to trick the protagonist and his friends into relationships of trust. I have my eye on this one.

And then there’s Kasumi Yoshizawa, your fellow transfer student. The game doesn’t give much of an impression of her character at this point aside from her being a hard-working and talented student athlete. We already know she has Persona-summoning abilities from her brief appearance in the intro of the game, and it’s pretty obvious that she’ll join the Phantom Thieves at some point and be a major part of the plot. But if I’m right about Maruki, then I don’t think Kasumi will be a secret villain — doesn’t make sense to add two new characters who are both bad guys, and female characters never seem to fall into that category in these games anyway. I predict that the game will try to pretend Kasumi is secretly an antagonist but then pull a twist, or what it thinks is a twist. Or maybe there will be a genuine twist regarding Kasumi? But even if there is, that doesn’t mean it will work (just ask Rian Johnson about plot twists not working, though he still defends Last Jedi to the death.)

In any case, she’s not gratingly annoying like a certain other addition to a Persona expansion, so that’s at least one point in her favor no matter what else happens.

And for my last game highlight, here’s one of the most interesting characters in P5. You might not think so, but to me Yuuki Mishima is a fascinating tragedy of a guy. In fact, I like to think Mishima is the protagonist of his own separate game that’s going on parallel to Persona 5. He kind of looks like a typical dating sim protagonist, doesn’t he? Maybe he’s the main character in a visual novel where he gets caught up in embarrassing misunderstandings with female classmates because he’s socially inept and awkward, and then he has to learn how to grow a spine and ask one of the girls out. If Atlus is trying to find a new way to milk Persona 5 for years to come as I’m sure they are, here’s a free idea for them.

That concludes my first look at Persona 5 Royal. Again, I’m liking this second playthrough a lot, even if that is mostly what it feels like so far instead of a first playthrough of a new game. But I’m hoping for some changes down the line that give characters like Yusuke and Haru more to do. Not hoping that much, since I wouldn’t be surprised if the new characters take up that time instead. I suppose I’ll find out if my predictions are right or wrong long after most everyone else has finished the game.

But will I ever find out the real reason they call her a “High Pixie”? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

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.