Does fun belong in “serious” video games?

I don’t know if I’ve seen an upcoming release as controversial as The Last of Us Part II in a while. It’s received almost entirely excellent reviews from the professional game press, who are declaring it a triumph of storytelling and a deep, affecting experience. Meanwhile, consumer opinion seems to be split — people are somehow already bitterly arguing about the game’s quality even though the damn thing isn’t out for another week. Granted, we have the first game to compare it to, but it still seems hasty to call the sequel a piece of shit on that basis, or even to call it a masterpiece based merely on the word of a bunch of professional reviewers.

I won’t be playing TLOU2. Not because I hate Naughty Dog or anything; I don’t care about them one way or the other, and I don’t really have it out for any game developer at all for that matter. Based on what I’ve seen, the game just doesn’t interest me. However, there is a question raised by all the back and forth fighting over TLOU2 that I do find interesting, and one that I was already thinking about before this controversy blew up — should a good game be fun to play? The reviews of this game I’ve read pretty consistently describe a miserable experience fighting through and hiding from both undead and living human threats and requiring the player to make potentially morally uncomfortable decisions. Yet those reviews also declare TLOU2 a triumph, with one guy comparing it to Schindler’s List and causing yet another uproar for it.

It goes on in this fashion

Setting aside Mr. Cannata’s weirdly narrow definition of “everything” being John Wick when it comes to games (I’m currently playing a game about a princess who makes items with alchemy, beats up dragons, and eats pie with her friends and it’s not much like John Wick1) I find his view interesting. The game wasn’t “fun” at all, but it was still an amazing experience. This isn’t a new take on video games, either. See this 2015 piece from Vice titled “The Value of Video Games That Aren’t ‘Fun'” that expresses a very similar view. The idea seems to be that a work of art that puts the player through hell as Cannata writes of TLOU2 can be inspiring and profound, and that such a game’s lack of fun elements can even work in its favor in that sense.

I don’t want to completely dismiss this idea. If video games are an artistic medium, and I think they are, then they can certainly affect the player emotionally and challenge their views of the world just as some of the great novels, plays, films, and music out there have done. To pull an example straight out of that Vice article, 1984 was a very depressing novel to read, but I thought it also totally achieved its goals in getting the reader to really care about a few people living in this unbelievably oppressive society. If a novel like that weren’t kind of hard to read, it would defeat the purpose. The same goes for Schindler’s List for that matter — a film about trying to save people during the Holocaust can’t really be called “fun” either, but it is profound, emotionally affecting, and very worth watching. So then why can’t a game also be depressing and hard to play, therefore making it way more profound and effective in challenging the player’s views of the world?

I see a few problems with the views expressed by these critics and writers. One is that they seem to be ignoring interactivity, an element of video games that isn’t shared by older media. When you sit down to watch a movie or read a book, you don’t expect to take an active part in it; you’re just taking in a story. With a game, however, unless it’s a visual novel or something similar [edit: and one without much player input either, like a kinetic novel] there’s an expectation that you’re going to get to interact and have some gameplay elements. So if you’re making a game an absolute misery to get through, you’re not just asking for the audience to passively sit and watch or read — you’re asking them to take an active part in struggling through a difficult mess for the payoff. That’s quite a bit more to ask.

A game can’t put a player in a rough situation and also be fun, it’s never been done before

Even that can make for a good game when done right, however. The Silent Hill games gave you pretty much normal-strength humans to control while fighting through and often hiding from vicious monsters. Plowing through enemies would be a lot easier and maybe more fun in some sense, but that’s not the sort of experience those games were meant to deliver. And despite all that, the Silent Hill series is widely beloved (up through Silent Hill 3 at least.) Even though they didn’t quite empower their player characters, putting them in extremely dangerous situations with scant protection and pretty average fighting ability, they also let you work out alternative ways to get through those situations when brute force was not going to work so well. A challenge like that can be fun in itself, and I’d argue the good Silent Hill games achieved that balance.

However, there’s another problem stacked on top of the first. If a game is going to put the player through any kind of hell at all, it has to deliver a payoff at the end that’s worth the effort spent to get there. Otherwise, it’s probably going to leave a rightly frustrated and annoyed player. If a game has something truly profound to say about humanity or life that’s worth the effort it takes to make it through its challenges, then it certainly could be worth playing, just as I think a book like 1984 is worth reading or a film like Schindler’s List is worth watching. If the payoff ends up being some trite message that most every person on Earth over the age of five already knows, however, then by contrast it won’t be worth playing unless the gameplay’s fun on some level. At that point, I’m far better off instead playing a game that’s fun and has no message at all.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t responsible for whatever this is.

Finally, there’s the problem of player agency. If a game’s going to take me to task for making the player character do something it perceives as wrong, it had damn well better give me options. Even though it doesn’t tie into its plot, I remember the old Thief games doing a good job of this: on higher difficulties the games usually forbade you from killing enemies in favor of knocking them out with your blackjack or with sleeping gas devices, the idea being that the protagonist Garrett is a professional thief, not a murderer. This was more difficult but always possible to achieve, and it made a no-kill run of a mission very satisfying to pull off on the harder levels. I think this element of player choice leading to a rewarding feeling was also a big part of why the indie RPG Undertale did so well.

However, a game that essentially forces the player to do something it deems bad only to chew them out for it afterward causes a disconnect between game and player. A game can’t simply make the protagonist do whatever it wants in the same way and with the same consequences as a novel, film, or other non-interactive work can. If I’m being put on rails and shoved down a track, you can’t make me feel bad for whatever happens as a result.2

Again, I don’t have any particular feelings about The Last of Us or Naughty Dog; I can’t and don’t plan on making any judgment of the game, and it’s no skin off my back if it ends up doing well or poorly. And after all, the market has room for all kinds of games. Some of those kinds I don’t especially care for, but why should that bother me? The same is true of every artistic medium on Earth. I just find some of the views expressed by professional reviewers who are praising it to be not very well-considered. By suggesting that this game is both profound and emotionally affecting and “not fun” and really emphasizing that “not fun” aspect, there seems to be an implication that a fun game can’t also be profound and emotionally affecting in the same way, and that doesn’t make a god damn bit of sense to me. 𒀭

1 It’s Atelier Meruru DX for the PS4, and now I’ve totally ruined the surprise when I post my review of it soon.

2 I recently bought a massive bundle of over a thousand games on itch.io. The deal is still on for a couple of days so check it out; the $5 minimum goes to the NAACP and a bunch of bail funds, which I think are pretty damn good causes. Anyway, one of the games included is 2064: Read Only Memories, a game that’s been sharply criticized for doing just this sort of obnoxious “railroad the player and then try to make them feel bad” thing. I might just have to see that for myself since I own it now. I did find the demo pretty irritating, but I shouldn’t judge it based on that alone.

However, the bundle also contains Dreaming Sarah and OneShot last I checked, and I know for a fact that those are both well worth playing.

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.

Soundtrack review: Katamari Fortissimo Damacy

It’s been a while since I reviewed a game soundtrack, so I thought why not take another one for a spin.  This particular soundtrack I only own a digital copy of, so I can’t tell you about the inserts or liner notes, but the music itself is enough to write a review, isn’t it? I’m not a professional at this.

If you can’t tell from the cover to the left, I’m talking about Katamari Fortissimo Damacy.  This is the OST to Katamari Damacy, a weird ass PS2 game that pretty much defied categorization when it was released back in 2004.  If you’ve never played any of the Katamari games, imagine rolling a sticky ball around a city that grows as it collects objects and is able to pick up increasingly larger objects as it grows such as cats, mailboxes, cars, fountains, trees, entire buildings, and eventually whole land masses.  That’s more or less the object of a stage in a Katamari game, or at least of its most fun stages.

Katamari Damacy was one of those wacky new things from Japan when it came to the States, the kind of game that made people think “wow, look at the crazy shit they come up with over there.”  Something like Super Monkey Ball or Seaman.  It is also a complete classic.  I’ve only played the first and second games in the series (We Love Katamari, also for the PS2) but both are well worth picking up.  They have a style of goofy lighthearted humor that is actually pretty funny and not annoying as such attempts can often be, and one that also gels with the unique gameplay style that the series established.  I don’t know why someone made a four-hour longplay of Katamari Damacy, since it’s the kind of game you really have to play yourself to get anything out of, but here’s one on the off chance you’ve never seen it before:

The same “wacky and interesting” vibe delivered by the game is also carried by the game’s music — in fact, I think the soundtrack to Katamari Damacy is one of the reasons the game did so well.  Even if I’m not totally in love with all the tracks here.  That’s not a criticism of any of the songs on Katamari Fortissimo Damacy, though.  The old breakup line “it’s not you, it’s me” comes to mind when I think of some of these songs, except in this case that phrase isn’t a lie; it actually describes how I feel about a few particular songs on this album.  (Well, that line doesn’t even work in the context of a breakup, but the subject of breakups is outside the scope of my blog.)

Before getting into that, let’s start with the positives.  I really like about half the songs on Katamari Fortissimo Damacy.  The theme of the game, Katamari on the Rocks, is a fast-paced song with a big horn section and a chorus of singers in the background.  This establishes the lighthearted feel of the game, and it’s a catchy song aside from that — good luck getting that “naaaaa na na na na na naa naa katamari damashii” line out of your head after hearing it the first time.  A Crimson Rose & Gin Tonic uses a 1940s-style big band setup with female jazz vocals, a style that I really like.  I’m also a fan of Katamaritaino for being such a nice chilled out song with relaxing vocals.  I really am getting older; every year I appreciate this kind of easy listening stuff more.  But this is good easy listening.  Tasteful.  Like João Gilberto or Tom Jobim.  In fact, there’s a really good bossa nova-style song on the second Katamari album that I’m not reviewing here but that you should check out anyway.

My favorite song on this album might be Katamari Mambo, a song that features two main vocalists: a goofy comic relief sounding-guy who keeps trying to start singing the song’s lyrics proper, and a lady who keeps interrupting him to sing said lyrics in a strikingly sexy mature voice (sorry if that sounds weird, but I can’t describe it any other way; just hear it for yourself.)  Add to that the fact that the song is full of lines that sound like sexual innuendo, and you’ll start to wonder how Namco got this one past whatever the Japanese equivalent of the ESRB is, if they have one.  Good thing the lyrics weren’t translated into English for the game’s western release, or else concerned parent groups might have started a campaign against it (this was back in the day when they were the ones primarily fighting against “inappropriate content” in games instead of our current set of usual suspects.) I’m always a fan of getting stuff past the censors, and Katamari Mambo is energetic and catchy enough to keep on my playlist forever.

The song’s main singer, Nobue Matsubara, also has a metric ton of albums out since the early 80s that all have covers like this, so I guess she’s been a big deal in Japan for a long time. No idea what these might sound like, though.  Leave a comment if you’re a fan!

However, while the game’s musical quirkiness works for me in some places, in a few others it doesn’t.  Like Cherry Blossom Color Season, for example, which features a bunch of little kids singing.  Which I’m just not a fan of at all.  Same goes for Katamari of Love, the ending theme to Katamari Damacy.  That song doesn’t feature annoying little kid singing, but I still don’t like it that much.  I can’t point to any really good reason for my dislike, though.  Maybe this album is just too god damn quirky and positive and happy for me to take all at once.  Or maybe the songs I like on the album are the ones I heard first while playing Katamari Damacy, and the novelty of the game along with the novelty of the music made a positive impression on me at the time.  I can’t think of any other reason why I’d like Lonely Rolling Star and dislike Katamari of Love, because there’s nothing technically wrong with the latter.  Same goes for a few of the other songs on the album that just grate on me sometimes.  In fact, if I’m in a bad mood, I can’t get into any of this Katamari music at all — even most of the songs I normally like end up irritating me.

So I’m not giving this album a rating.  I just don’t think I can judge it objectively enough to assign it a meaningful score.  Not that any of my reviews, or any reviews at all, are ever objective, but this time I really feel like I’m being unfair to the work in a way I can’t help.  So here’s my general view of it: this is a good album, and if you’re not a bitter, miserable asshole like me, you’ll probably appreciate it more than I do.  Or maybe you won’t like it that much, and that’s fine too.  This is one of those cases where I’d recommend playing the game over listening to the soundtrack on its own, though.  Katamari Damacy is still a lot of fun, and the music contributes to the game in setting a rhythm and pace for the player.  And the game is a hell of a lot cheaper than the album — a quick search shows used copies of Katamari Damacy available for several dollars, while the soundtrack will run you more than 30.  If you have a PS2 lying around and haven’t played this or any of the Katamari games, consider that a solid recommendation.  Or you can buy the Switch remake Katamari Damacy Reroll, but I haven’t played it, so I can’t give it a rating either.  Some fucking reviewer I am, huh?

Backlog review: Senran Kagura Estival Versus (PS4)

I hate summer.  Maybe it’s because I live in the South, where our summers are unbearably hot and humid, but I can’t stand this season.  And ever since I became an adult, summer has lost the one benefit it carried, which was being out of school.1  All that’s left are the heat and the insects.  So give me fall.  Give me winter.  I’ll even take spring with all its allergy-triggering pollen.  But the rest of you can god damn keep summer for yourselves.

However, even I can’t resist the call of the beach.  And never mind that I’m a neurotic nerd who refuses to go out into the sun without wearing long sleeves and pants, or even that I live four hours from the coast, because I’ve got Senran Kagura Estival Versus. I’ve had this game for over a year, in fact, but until recently it’s just been sitting in my PS4 backlog.  I decided to dig it up again about a month ago, and I’m happy I did, because it makes for the perfect escape.

I hear you, Murasaki. Sorry for putting you through all this.

The Senran Kagura series is a bit infamous among gamers for its copious amounts of fanservice, and it’s naturally gotten more than its share of complaints from the big western game review sites for it.  But God bless them, developer Marvelous! and creator and producer Kenichiro Takaki keep putting these games out, and they keep getting NA and EU ports (though unfortunately not without some cut content recently thanks to Sony’s new policies, namely in Senran Kagura Reflexions for the PS4.)  The look and feel of Senran Kagura owe a lot to character designer and artist Nan Yaegashi, whose artistic direction is responsible for the “bouncy” nature of these games.

Yaegashi is also responsible for the many special CGs in the game.

Released in 2016, Senran Kagura Estival Versus is a beat-em-up starring the usual cast of ninja girls grouped into different academies that seem to have been built for the express purpose of teaching young ladies how to beat the hell out of each other.  One day, each of the four first-string teams of shinobi are magically summoned to an extradimensional tropical island by Sayuri, a retired shinobi and grandmother of Asuka, the leader of one of the four teams.  Sayuri explains to the girls that they must fight each other in the “Millennium Festival”, a battle royale that pits all four teams against each other in a completely non-lethal “defend the base” sort of game, and that time in their own world will stand still while they carry out their contest.

However, matters are complicated when some of the shinobis’ dead relatives also start to appear on the island, alive and seemingly healthy.  Upon being questioned, Sayuri explains that this island is home to shinobi who have passed on to the next life.  Although the four teams are intense rivals, their members are also friendly with each other on some level, and they all agree after talking it over that Sayuri and her assistants seem to be hiding the true purpose behind the festival.  Meanwhile, some of the shinobi start to lose their nerve, expressing a desire to permanently stay in this new dimension with their deceased family members and creating friction with those who want to win the battle and return home to fight an ancient evil that’s awoken to threaten life on Earth, conveniently just at the time the shinobi were teleported to this island.

Asuka fights some low-level shinobi grunts.

It wouldn’t be right to say that Estival Versus is nothing but fanservice.  It has a plot that serves the game perfectly well, and its drama is nicely balanced by Senran Kagura’s brand of absurd humor.  I already addressed this in my review of Our World Is Ended, but I have no problem with throwing “inappropriate” humor and sex jokes into a game as long as it doesn’t cause too much of a tone problem, and it doesn’t in this case.  And anyway, it wouldn’t be a proper Senran Kagura game without all the lewd jokes and wacky girl-on-girl hijinks and misunderstandings.  If that’s not what you’re into, you already know the series isn’t for you anyway, and if you are, it’s just a good time.

The fact that the combat-based clothes-tearing carries over to the post-battle cutscenes maybe slightly deflates the drama of Miyabi not wanting to leave behind the spirit of her dead mother, but that’s okay.

As far as gameplay goes, Estival Versus is on solid ground.  All our favorite shinobi return as playable characters along with a few new faces, and they have a wide variety of fighting styles, some easier to use and some more difficult/frustrating.  This makes it a little annoying that the game requires you to play as every single shinobi at least once to make it through the main Millennium Festival campaign, since the player character is swapped after each mission.  However, it’s not such a big deal: the game lets you change the difficulty level at any time, so if you find one particular shinobi hard to control, you can always switch over to normal or easy mode for her mission if that’s not too shameful an act for you to bear.  Grinding is also easy to do, though it’s not especially necessary.  Upon completing one of the main campaign missions, you can return to play it with any character you like, meaning you can pit a character against herself in battle, which is always fun.  And if you’re really up against a wall, the game gives you the option of cheesing boss fights by butt-stomping your enemies into submission, though that move doesn’t trigger those famous strategic-clothes-tearing-off sequences that would occur otherwise during battle.

Murasaki is my favorite character, even if her weapon is frustrating to use and totally stupid from a practical perspective.

While Estival Versus does have paid DLC, the great majority of its extra content is unlockable within the game proper, which is something I appreciate.  And there is a lot of it.  Each character gets her own story consisting of five unique missions in addition to the main campaign, and there are extra campaigns on top of those.  None of these missions offer anything different gameplay-wise from the usual “beat up huge crowds of low/mid-level enemies and then beat up one to three of your fellow shinobi” structure.  That’s more or less the whole game.  However, what you do get are a lot more goofy scenarios and dialogue between the characters.  Because not only do these girls fight each other when they have an argument — they also fight when they’re having an otherwise nice, civil conversation (my favorite: shut-in Murasaki beating the writer’s block out of Mirai so she can continue her online novel.)  Fighting is what they know, and it’s what they do.  And it’s what you’ll do if you play this game.  There are also the usual antics you can get up to in the dressing room, where you can try out the dozens upon dozens of costumes and put the girls in embarrassing poses if that’s your thing, but that’s all entirely optional.

So this is one of those cases where assigning a score feels pointless, because you’ll already know whether you’ll love or hate this game before you play it.  Estival Versus is a very competent brawler, and the basic gameplay is fun if you’re into that style of game.  But if you’re not a fan of the Senran Kagura aesthetic, you probably won’t like this or any of the other games in the series.2  For my part, I give Estival Versus a 6, because that’s just how much I liked it.  If giving a lewd anime girl beat-em-up such a high score means I lose my credibility as a serious game reviewer… well, as far as I know, I never had any such credibility in the first place, so that’s okay with me.

Yes, this game is a masterpiece. Fight me.

Also, this doesn’t seem to be mentioned very often, but the Senran Kagura games I’ve played before have good soundtracks, and this one is no exception.  The Estival Versus OST features a nice mix of western and eastern instruments and styles, and some of its pieces are really catchy.  And every single character has a theme song as well.  The composers certainly weren’t slacking off on this project.  In fact, check out Yumi’s theme: it’s partly a rearrangement of Mozart’s Requiem.  See, this is actually a very classy game.

1 Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from The Simpsons from back when the show was good, between Homer and his son Bart when Bart complains about missing summer after breaking his leg and getting a cast: “Don’t worry, boy.  When you get a job like me, you’ll miss every summer.”

2 I don’t think any of the Senran Kagura games deserve to be dismissed on the grounds that they reflect bad gender politics, because they’re mostly over-the-top games that don’t really try to say anything about gender politics.  In fact, you could argue that on the occasions these games take a serious tone, they represent empowered female characters who face their problems head-on.

But this is a subject for a different post.  All I have left to say about it right now is this: if these games honestly creep you out, I can’t criticize you for feeling that way.  Everyone has different tastes.  I’d just like it if the “woke” crowd on Twitter and elsewhere would also recognize that fact and stop calling for these games to be censored or not exported to the West.  If you don’t like them, just don’t fucking buy them and let the rest of us have our fun.  Can we agree to that?  (Well, of course we can’t, because they get off on exercising control over others by attempting to shame them over their taste in games and other media.  But good luck getting these brave guardians of wholesomeness to admit to that.)

Megami Tensei #2: The solitary soul

Yes, it’s more of this weird stuff. Sorry. The following post contains major story and ending spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne.

Humans are social animals. We all need connections with our fellow humans. We all need love from other people. That’s just common knowledge, isn’t it?

I’ve always been an introvert. Huge surprise, I know – you couldn’t have guessed that the guy who’s into weird JRPGs likes to keep to himself. I’m thankful for the fact that I can at least function in society and pretend to be a more or less normal person, but at my core, I’m still the same reclusive kid I always was. I used to dream about going to some distant island and just staying there alone forever. I still have those dreams sometimes.

As much as I hate to admit it, even I need to socialize. One of the reasons I write on this site is to connect with readers, after all, and that’s a kind of indirect socializing. And yes, I do have friends, and I’m maybe not quite as miserable as I let on sometimes. But does the mind really need those social connections to keep sane and healthy? That’s one of the questions raised by Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. You might already know that Nocturne is one of my favorite games, but one of the reasons I love it so much is all the philosophizing its characters get up to.

First we have to set the table. The game starts about a half-hour before the world ends. Specifically, about a half-hour into Nocturne, the protagonist’s hometown of Tokyo is mostly wrecked and turned inside-out so that its ruins are now on the inside of a sphere, like an inverted Earth, with a sun-like representation of the Japanese fire god Kagutsuchi floating in the center of the sphere.*

Nocturne starts like a survival horror game, then turns into something completely different.

Our silent blank slate protagonist, your typical high school student, just happens to have been in a hospital with two of his schoolmates, Chiaki and Isamu, on a visit to their teacher Yuko Takao at the time – the same hospital where this apocalypse was triggered by a cult leader in the basement through some kind of arcane occult magic. Since the hospital itself was spared from the disaster (the cult leader wanted to survive, after all, so he presumably created a magical barrier around it) you, your friends, the teacher, the cult leader and a stray journalist you met earlier that day who somehow found his way into the hospital all survive. However, almost every other human has been killed, inverted ruined Tokyo world has been filled with demons (of course it has – it’s an SMT game) and the protagonist is himself turned into a demon by a mysterious boy and his elderly nanny who force an infernal parasite into his brain through his nose.

Aw, shit… how much did I drink last night?

Got that? It’s all a little bizarre, but the gist of it is that the world as we know it has ended. But not permanently. Just before his demonic transformation, the protagonist receives a telepathic message from Kagutsuchi in which he’s commanded to “find a Reason” and create a new world. These Reasons are basic philosophies, principles for how the world should best operate. If a human can find one of these Reasons and collect enough magatsuhi (some kind of weird glowing red energy that exists in all living things in the Vortex World, as this inside-out sphere world is called) he can gain enough power to summon a god to carry him to Kagutsuchi, who will then let said human create his ideal world. So while the Vortex World is chaotic and filled with violence, it’s really meant to be a brief transition from the end to our world to the beginning of the next one.

Yeah, the apocalypse isn’t fun.

There’s a problem, though. After receiving Kagutsuchi’s command, you might expect that your quest here is to find your own Reason, summon your own god and create your own world. In a different game, that would be the case. But in Nocturne it’s not, because only a human can conceive of a Reason, and the protagonist is no longer fully human. He still has a human mind and what looks more or less like a human body, but in exchange for gaining the superior physical and magical power of a demon, he has traded away part of his humanity, or at least enough of it that he no longer gets to enter Kagutsuchi’s “Create Your Ideal World” contest (only humans qualify; it’s in the fine print.) However, the Demifiend, as the protagonist is now known, can lend his power to one of the remaining humans if they conceive of a Reason he likes and can fight for the supremacy of that Reason over the others.

In the course of the game, three Reasons are conceived, and two more are attempted but fail for different reasons. The first of these Reasons is conceived by Hikawa, the dillweed cult leader who started this whole mess. It’s called Shijima, the world of stillness, one in which all souls melt into a perfectly consistent soup of energy and nothing changes for the rest of eternity (at least I think that’s the idea – his explanation is obscure, or maybe I’m just too stupid to get it.)

Hikawa explains his Reason, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The other two Reasons are conceived by your two surviving still-human classmates, Chiaki and Isamu. Chiaki champions Yosuga, the world of strength, which seems to be something close to the Chaos “might makes right” alignment in the other SMT games with the exception that the powerful can’t be challenged and overthrown in Chiaki’s version. While both Hikawa and Chiaki actively seek demon minions to help them gather magatsuhi to call down their gods, Isamu retreats into the Amala Network, a series of tunnels “under” the Vortex World that act as a sort of extra-dimensional subway system for the Demifiend and those few others who know how to use it. It’s in this Network that Isamu realizes his own Reason of Musubi, a world of solitude in which every soul can create his or her own reality separate from every other reality. Strangely enough, Isamu starts to gather demon followers as well, though they don’t have quite the same team spirit as the Yosuga and Shijima demons have for obvious reasons.

Yeah, keep telling yourself that.

The first time I played Nocturne, I wasn’t following a guide, so I didn’t realize that rejecting all three Reasons was a viable option. I thought I had to make a choice out of the three. All three of the Reason-conceiving characters try to some degree to convince Demifiend that he should support them, and there are a few dialogue and decision points starting around late mid-game that present the player with the option of supporting or rejecting each. Naturally, you can’t support more than one reason, so the game uses a point system to determine which Reason you end up backing, sort of like the Golden Saucer date system in Final Fantasy VII except the fate of the world lies in the balance.

Out of the three Reasons, I rejected Shijima out of hand. Hikawa is an asshole who never shows any sympathy for the protagonist or his friends, who in fact uses and deceives your teacher to collect magatsuhi for the purpose of creation. On top of that, his ideal world sounded like a hellish nightmare to me. Shijima seems similar to some of the less orthodox Western ideas about Heaven or to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, in which the idea of the self and all its desires are lost. I know that’s supposed to be a good thing, but I guess I’m not enlightened at all, because I’d rather keep my self intact, as much as I hate it sometimes. So there was no way I was going with Shijima. The “strong oppressing the weak forever” world of Yosuga also sounded pretty lousy. Chiaki is the game’s only female human character aside from Takao, so some players might have thought about making her Demifiend’s qt waifu, but alas, near the end of the story she’s absorbed into a weird-looking god named Baal Avatar and completely loses all semblance of humanity, so that’s not happening. Nocturne isn’t a Persona game, and there’s no Christmas date with your girlfriend in the Vortex World.

This is really as close as you get.

That left Musubi. Isamu is kind of a dick throughout the first half of the game and ends up blaming Demifiend for not saving him from being captured by a gang of demons that were squeezing magatsuhi from every living thing they could find, something that wasn’t Demifiend’s fault at all. But once he finds his Reason, he forgives Demifiend for that, since he seems to have found his own truth – that people live essentially separate lives and can never truly empathize with each other. Hence Isamu’s ideal world, which takes a lot of credit from the idea of solipsism, that you can never be sure of any fact other than that you exist. Isamu doesn’t elaborate on this idea a whole lot when you meet him in the Amala Network near the endgame, but he seems to suggest that in his new world, everyone would be able to create their own worlds in their own minds, essentially talking to themselves for the rest of eternity, or at least until the next death and rebirth of this universe.

When you transcend the plane of normal humanity, you lose your shirt but keep your hat.  Those are the rules.

This might sound just as hellish to you as Hikawa’s world of stillness or Chiaki’s world of strength, but I find something interesting in it. The mind needs socialization, but if it creates its own society, its own world, its own universe – maybe that fulfills its need perfectly. The real world may already be headed in that direction with improvements in AI and the creation of virtual worlds that are starting to not look and feel like shit when you enter them. Be honest with yourself – given the choice, would you deal with the outer world full of people you can never fully empathize with or trust, or with your own inner world? Most people would honestly say the former, and I understand why. But I also understand where Isamu is coming from, and I was 100% in “fuck the whole world” mode the first time I played Nocturne. I chose to support Isamu, and we built our own world(s) at the end of the game when I beat the hell out of Kagutsuchi for him (turns out Kagutsuchi doesn’t let you create your own world unless you can beat him in a two-stage boss fight. That must have also been in the fine print.)

On my second playthrough, I found out that I could reject every Reason and get a different, better ending, so I did that instead. Still, even after all this time, Isamu’s world of solitude holds some appeal for me. Throughout my life, I’ve been told what to do and how to do it. I’m sure you’ve been told the same. Even now, I don’t feel like I live for myself at all, but only out of duty to others. I’d like nothing better to escape, though that’s impossible. Is it selfish of me to think that way? Probably. Should I care whether that makes me selfish? Every day I live, I care less and less. Weirdly enough, then, Isamu is the character in Nocturne I empathize with the most.  Aside from Yuko Takao, that is.  She’s got it the worst.  Elaborating on her story would take an even longer post than this one, so I’ll set it aside.

It’s sad, though.

What are your thoughts? What kind of world would you create if you were given the option? Do you think it’s even right to impose your own ideals on the entire world the way the characters in Nocturne do? Do you wish I would shut up about this nonsense and review my backlog of games instead? I will, I promise. 𒀭

 

* What happened to the rest of Earth outside of Tokyo after the Conception is never addressed, but our characters have enough of their own problems to be concerned with that. Maybe Tokyo just blinked out of existence and left a void behind, or maybe every city and every little bumfuck town in the world experienced its own Conception based on their city and county limits.

A review of Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight

Yes, I caved in and bought the Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight package for the PS4.  Yes, I am ashamed of myself for buying this grossly overpriced cash-in.  Yes, I hate myself completely and utterly, and you can’t possibly put me down in any way I haven’t already done to myself.

Aigis is in it, so I had to buy it. That’s my flimsy excuse.

Now that the self-hatred part of the review is out of the way, how are these games? They’re… all right.  Fine.  Kind of disappointing, to be honest, and not for the reasons you might expect.  The Persona series has one of the best sets of soundtracks of any game series ever, thanks to composer Shoji Meguro and the many performers who play the music.  So I didn’t expect to be disappointed by the tracklists to these games.  Persona 4: Dancing All Night, released back in 2015 for the Vita, was no slouch in the tracklist department and featured a lot of good remixes.  The remixes in P3D and P5D, by contrast, are mostly pretty lackluster.  It’s not good when I end up greatly preferring the original track to the remix – if that’s the case, it would be better just to use the original track instead, and that’s what Atlus ends up doing with a lot of the featured dances.  Another problem is the length of each tracklist – only around 25 or so in each game, not counting DLC songs, and some of them don’t even feature the characters dancing but rather animated cutscenes from the games.  Considering the price tag of each game, this is really not acceptable.

Dancing was invented so Atlus could milk Persona games

Some fans have also been disappointed by the fact that, unlike P4:DAN, the P3 and P5 dancing games have no story mode option.  These games instead have very thin story sections that consist of Velvet Room attendants Elizabeth (in P3D) and Justine and Caroline (in P5D) transporting all of SEES/the Phantom Thieves to special dance studio Velvet Rooms in their dreams while they all sleep to have a dance-off against each other.  The two teams never actually meet, which is another disappointment – since they’re all dreaming, and the Velvet Room attendants assure them they won’t remember any of their dreams (isn’t that convenient) it wouldn’t have affected the games’ stories at all.  Hell, you guys already had the P3 and P4 teams meet in Persona Q, and they’ll all be thrown together again in Persona Q 2, so why weren’t these two games combined into one with separate modes for each team like Q was?

The closest thing we get to story mode is a social/confidant link system with eight conversations with each team member, including Elizabeth and Justine/Caroline.  These conversations are full of references to their respective games, so parts of them aren’t going to make a whole lot of sense to newcomers to the series, but at least we get something to do other than play the rhythm game section constantly.  Although the conversations do have to be unlocked by getting achievements, so you’ll have to work for them.

That’s very “meta”, Futaba, thank you

Well shit.  All I’ve done is complain about these games so far, and I don’t want to give the impression that I hate them.  So what about the positives?  The music is pretty damn good on balance – the original soundtracks to both games are great, after all, and even some mediocre remixes can’t ruin good tracks.  The new Persona 3 character models look great.  And the dancing itself is really well done.  Like in P4:DAN, each character dances in a way that’s very much an expression of their personality – Mitsuru’s dancing is elegant, Yusuke has a weird, artsy style, Akihiko and Makoto use a lot of fighting moves, Aigis is extremely precise, and Fuuka is kind of awkward but clearly trying her best.  The character pairings during dances are also pretty fun; it’s especially cute how Futaba tries to imitate the style of the main dancer when she joins in.  My favorite is Haru, though – I don’t remember if she ever dropped the fact that she’d formerly been a ballerina anywhere in Persona 5, but here she busts out some great-looking ballet moves.  Pirouettes.  Swan Lake?  I don’t know ballet that well, sorry.  I’m not cultured enough; I only specialize in stupid weeb games like these.

Ballet combined with aikido moves makes for a good combination.

I guess the biggest question is whether these games are worth buying at their unforgivably high sticker prices for people who haven’t played or aren’t especially fond of Persona 3 or Persona 5.  The answer is absolutely not.  I don’t usually mess around with bold text, and this is both bold and italicized, so you know I’m serious.  Not that P3D or P5D are really bad games.  To the average consumer, they’ll probably come off as serviceable rhythm games.  And if you see them on sale somewhere, I’d say at least one of them is worth buying for the non-initiate (probably not both, because they’re effectively the same game with different casts of characters and different tracks to dance to, which is partly why I’m reviewing them jointly.)  At a sticker price of 60 dollars each, however, they are stupidly overpriced.  The PS4 bundle, which includes both games and a digital copy of Persona 4: Dancing All Night for 100 dollars, is a better deal, and I might even say it’s worth getting if just to have P4:DAN on the PS4, which isn’t available separately, at least at the moment.  But that deal is hardly worth it for the non-hardcore fan.

If you’re a massive fan of the core games, you’ll obviously get more value out of these.  A lot of the content in P3D and P5D is basically dessert for people who finished P3 and P5.  We also get the expected fanservice with a lot of unlockable costumes, including the usual bathing suits and butler suits for the guys and maid outfits, swimsuits and fantasy bikini armor for the girls.  So if you’re into that kind of stuff, have fun.  There’s also plenty of paid costume DLC too, so have your fucking credit card or Paypal account ready if you really want it that badly.

Just pile on the fanservice boys, the more the better

Anyway, ratings.  I can only give each of these games a 4 on my scale – just passing.  The dancing is fun and all, and it’s nice to see our beloved P3 and P5 casts together again, but there were too many disappointments here with their respective tracklists to give these games anything higher, and I’m pissed off at Atlus for effectively using these games as a DLC delivery service.  As far as rhythm games go, the Vocaloid title Project DIVA Future Tone is far better, both in terms of value and variety of music, and it’s the one to buy if you don’t care about injecting Persona fanservice directly into your bloodstream. Bump that score up a point if you can get either or both of these games for a bargain, because they are basically good, but I’m still pissed off about the whole thing.

Maybe dessert truly is the best way to describe these games: buying and playing them are like gorging on cake.  Nice at first, and incredibly sweet, but in the end you feel sick and regret what you’ve done.

On the other hand, maybe it’s worth it to hear Akihiko’s underwear tips.

With that, I’m done spending money on games for a while.  I’m trying to keep my head above water and save some money to put a down payment on a house after the next housing bubble pops, so until Shin Megami Tensei V or Disgaea 6 forces me to finally buy a Switch, you can look forward to a bunch of reviews from my massive backlog, along with my planned soundtrack reviews, “games for broke people” reviews, the occasional post about law, and the constant depression and bitching and moaning I deliver.  In other words, nothing’s really going to change.

A review of Persona 5 (or, why I’ve been away for the past two months)

For those wondering why I’ve been neglecting my writing duties lately, here’s the reason. Also, I don’t have any duty to write here; it’s not like I’m on a schedule or have a Patreon account set up or anything like that. If you, dear reader, want to pay me to write here or anywhere else for that matter, send me an email and we can make some arrangements.

Anyway, my life has been fully occupied between working and playing Persona 5 since I got my preorder on April 4. It’s honestly a stupid idea to write a review of Persona 5 – if you’re reading this, you already know it’s good, and you probably know that I loved it. The game has been showered with praise from every corner. This is exactly the reason why I’m not going to bother writing a review of NieR: Automata – nobody needs it. But since life itself is ultimately futile and pointless, why not throw one more review onto the pile?

Persona 5 is without a doubt my favorite out of the Persona games, not counting Persona and the two Persona 2 titles that I didn’t play aside from the first ten hours of Innocent Sin.* While I loved Persona 3 and 4 and really, extremely loved Persona 4 Golden, Persona 5 is better than all of them in every way. If I bothered to rate games I’d have to give this one a 10/10 and reassign P4 Golden to 9.9/10 or something. See, though, this is one of the reasons why I don’t give out ratings to games. People can accuse me of not being reader-friendly on this site, but nobody can accuse me of being inconsistent.

If you’ve been in solitary confinement or a monastery without internet access for the last few months, here’s the basic plot to Persona 5: your high school-aged silent protagonist character tries to help a woman escape from a creepy, gropy drunk guy. However, protagonist ends up accidentally injuring the assaulter in the process. It turns out that Drunky is a man with influence and has clout with local police because you are unjustly convicted of assault and placed on probation, and for some reason you’re forced to move from your small town to a seedy-looking Tokyo neighborhood as a condition of your probation. Your new guardian sets you up in the attic of the coffee shop he runs and warns you not to screw up or else you’ll be sent to serve the rest of your probation in juvenile hall. Then all the typical Persona stuff happens (go to the Velvet Room, learn about impending disaster, enter a dream world where you fight monsters while also attending high school during the day, date a bunch of cute girls at the same time, etc.)

Makoto is best girl, just in case you were wondering.

I don’t want to spoil too much about Persona 5, because it’s worth playing completely 100% blind. However, if you don’t mind minor spoilers, proceed below to see my reasons, in no real order, why I think this game is better than the preceding Persona games and why you might considering playing it even if you didn’t like P3 or P4.

– A more interesting story

This one is admittedly subjective, but I felt more engaged by the plot of Persona 5 than those of 3 and 4. The Phantom Thieves administering justice to wrongdoers by stealing their evil desires and forcing them to confess their crimes was great fun to watch. And the theme of abuse of power than ran through the game made it more compelling.

– A better soundtrack

Another subjective point, but this is the best Persona soundtrack yet. It’s a lot heavier on the jazz with some rock and 70s funk/RnB (?) mixed in, and I just prefer that to the styles of music used in 3 and 4. I never once got tired of “Last Surprise”, the normal battle theme that plays over 1,000 times every playthrough, even though I should have. Meanwhile I never want to hear “BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY” ever again.

I still really like “Time to Make History” though.

– Date your fucking teacher

I am completely serious

In Persona 3 and 4, the protagonists got to try dating their choice of a whole set of various classmates (including a robot girl in Persona 3 FES.) In Persona 5, the protagonist can also date several of his classmates, but he can also start a romantic relationship with his homeroom teacher. Yes, this is really an option they included in the game. Ms. Kawakami seems to be only about 10 or 12 years older than the protagonist, but since the protagonist is 16, that’s a pretty serious age gap. I don’t know if Japanese consent laws are that different from American ones, but I imagine she’d be in trouble with the law or at the very least lose her job if anyone ever found out about her relationship with a student.**

The protagonist can also charm his way into a relationship with a few other adult women in Persona 5, including a doctor, a fortune teller, and an alcoholic journalist. I don’t know if all of the above makes P5 better than 3 or 4, but it does make it more interesting, doesn’t it?

– It’s basically Shin Megami Tensei V

Every mainline SMT game takes place in Tokyo. So does Persona 5. P5 also contains demon negotiation like those games – unlike P3 and P4, which featured bizarre shadow monsters as enemies, P5 lets you fight the actual SMT demons and recruit them when you hit their weakness or crit them, complete with the weird human/demon conversations you’ve come to expect from those games. It’s more or less Shin Megami Tensei V disguised as a Persona game. All it’s missing is the Law/Chaos alignment system.

Okay, this one is a real stretch. It seems like the actual Shin Megami Tensei V is coming out on the Switch, though it hasn’t been officially titled yet. My point is that Persona 5 feels a lot more like a mainline SMT game than any other spinoff in the series I’ve played, and I think that’s a good thing.

Those are all the spoilers you’re getting. If you haven’t played Persona 5, for God’s sake go and play it. Unless you really hate turn-based JRPGs. In which case what the hell are you doing reading this site? 𒀭

* Persona 2: Innocent Sin isn’t bad by any means, but I found that it was really hard to get used to the wonky battle setup and weird fusion system after playing P3 and P4. I was also attending school at the time, so my attention was already mostly on my studies. I know people who swear by Persona 2, though, so I might still return to it someday.

** There is absolutely no way in hell Atlus would put this particular social link in the game if the protagonist and Kawakami’s genders were reversed. Not that I advocate this kind of relationship no matter what the particular gender setup happens to be, but the double standard is still worth mentioning.

Edit (8/23/18): I wrote this piece when I wasn’t so useless and despondent as I am now.  I still think Persona 5 is a great game, but Persona 3 definitely beats it out as far as having realistic characters goes (take Yukari, for instance, who is incredibly irritating for the first half of the game.)  Even Persona 4 does a little better, with an antagonist who has an honestly pretty realistic motivation for doing what he does.  I also don’t really know what I meant by this game being Shin Megami Tensei V.  It’s pretty obvious that Shin Megami Tensei V is going to be Shin Megami Tensei V.  Even with the demon negotiation stuff in Persona 5, Persona and SMT are extremely different in tone and mechanics despite being both under the Megami Tensei umbrella.

Finally, not so sure about Makoto being best girl anymore – now I think it’s got to be Futaba.  But Makoto is still high up on the list.