Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 2 (Ame-no-Uzume)

Since Megami Tensei is a Japanese game series, it doesn’t seem right not to cover any Japanese entities.  So of course I’m going with Ame-no-Uzume, a goddess of “mirth and revelry” best known for her stripper act. Ame-no-Uzume is the wife of the god Sarutahiko (also a demon in the Megaten series) in the Shinto tradition, responsible for bringing light back into the world after the sun goddess Amaterasu (also featured in Megaten, as are most of these deities) got pissy and decided to hide in a cave.  Amaterasu had a pretty good reason — her brother Susano-o, the storm god, was drenching and destroying crop fields and throwing shit around in the way you’d expect a storm god to do.

Even so, the world needed the sun to keep going.  Nobody could get Amaterasu to leave her cave, so without warning Uzume decided to start a strip show for all the other assembled gods.  They all found this so funny that they roared with laughter, and Amaterasu poked her head out of the cave to see what the hell was so hilarious the way anyone would. After seeing her bright reflection in a bronze mirror Uzume had purposely hung up in front of the cave’s mouth, Amaterasu wandered out, and another god quickly rolled a rock up behind her blocking the cave’s entrance.  In this way, the rest of the gods managed to convince Amaterasu to calm down and go back to her duties of being the sun, all thanks to the ingenuity of Ame-no-Uzume.

A traditional depiction of Uzume at Amanoiwato Shrine, where the whole thing happened

This was such an important achievement that the place where this is supposed to have happened in Japan is marked with a shrine dedicated to Uzume way down in a town called Takachiho in Kyushu.  Quite a long trip from Tokyo if you’re ever there visiting,  but if you want to pay your respects to the heavenly party goddess in the most serious way possible, you know where to do it.

In the Megaten universe, Uzume is usually a pretty low-level demon despite her status as a divinity; she’s typically one of the first in the Megami or goddess race of demons.  She tends to be very useful, though — Uzume is practically a must-have in Nocturne to beat Matador due to her resistance to wind skills, and she’s generally a good ally to have in the early game if she’s available.  I do like how her design reflects her position as the divine stripper — leave it to Kazuma Kaneko to put the emphasis on that, though to be fair to him, that seems to be by far the most famous story about Uzume.

Okay, so maybe this entry wasn’t as family-friendly as the last one.  Maybe tomorrow will be more G-rated.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 1 (Jack Frost)

Who better to honor on the first day of this Christmas series than Jack Frost?  He’s not only the personification of winter, which all of us in the Northern Hemisphere are living through right now.  He’s also the closest thing to an official mascot for the Megami Tensei series as a whole and for its developer, Atlus.  Jack Frost, as far as I know, has been in every Megami Tensei game ever created (or at least in all the ones I’ve played.)  He even starred in Jack Bros., a bizarre spinoff for the ill-fated Virtual Boy that most people in the West probably only learned about when the Angry Video Game Nerd covered it in his Virtual Boy retrospective video on Youtube, and even he didn’t seem to realize exactly what it was.

In his normal form, Jack is usually a low-level common demon you’ll encounter in the early game.  He tends to be pretty friendly but also enjoys playing tricks on humans, so it may be just as difficult to recruit him as some of the more outwardly hostile or icy demons.  The player shouldn’t be deceived by his cute looks — Jack Frost’s tricks can end up getting your entire party killed if your team is weak to his ice skills.

Jack Frost in earlier times, when he served as a Union general in the Civil War

The only real downside to Jack Frost being Jack Frost is that he has to share a name with not only the mythological being he’s derived from, the personification of winter, but also with all the other characters derived from him. Namely that Disney character or whatever he is (Dreamworks? The assholes who made that annoying Sing movie? I don’t know) and the shitty, extremely horrifying Michael Keaton movie from 1998 where he turns into a snowman.  Both of these guys clog up the Google Image Search results for “jack frost”, so they can go to hell.  Not Michael Keaton I mean, just the character he played and the movie he was in.

Black Frost brutalizing some regular Jack Frosts. Even when he’s being beaten up, Jack Frost has that happy expression.

Jack also has several relatives in the Jack family of demons, some of whom are far more powerful.  Most notable among these are his fire-based brother Pyro Jack, the emperor of the ice fairies depicted as a giant Jack Frost in a king’s robe and powdered wig King Frost, and Black Frost, a Jack Frost who sought great power and ended up turning evil.*  Black Frost is typically a mid-level demon and is a great asset to the player thanks to his having both ice and fire skills and resistances, so you should definitely try to fuse him any time you can.  He’s such a useful team member that some players keep him on well past the point where his level should have made him obsolete.  Those resistances are just that important in a Megaten game; if you have a demon strong to ice, fire, and dark attacks and without any weaknesses you can wipe the floor with a lot of standard-issue grunts and even with some bosses, even if they’re at a significantly higher level.

I hope you liked the two-for-one demon deal you got today, because it probably won’t happen again.  Check back tomorrow!

=

* Japanese language minute: The name “Black Frost” is an attempt at a translation of the Japanese name ジャアクフロスト with the “ジャアク/jyaaku” part written 邪悪, which is also pronounced ジャアク but means “evil.” These kanji puns just don’t translate.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin – first impressions

After being turned inside out by my fall exams, I need something to take my mind off the impending doom of bad grades and extreme depression that will follow. The answer seems to be Persona 2: Innocent Sin, which I’ve been playing since my mindbendingly hard Corporations exam ended early today. (If you’re a law student as well, maybe we can agree on this: fuck Corporations.)

Like most of the people I know who are into JRPGs, I played Persona 3/4 and enjoyed them both, so I thought I would try out Persona 2, which I’d heard good things about. P2 is split into two separate games, Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. And since Innocent Sin is apparently the first in the series, it seemed like the natural choice. Both P2 games were originally released on the Playstation, and Innocent Sin was later ported to the PSP, which is the version I’ve got.

This is the old original cover art for Innocent Sin, but I think it's a lot cooler looking than the kind of generic PSP cover.  Somewhat unsettling in that Kazuma Kaneko style.

This is the old original cover art for Innocent Sin, but I think it’s a lot cooler looking than the kind of generic PSP cover. Somewhat unsettling in that Kazuma Kaneko style.

Several things about Persona 2 will be familiar right off the bat to those of you who’ve gotten through your 60+ hour playthroughs of P3 and P4. The first is the high school setting. The idea of the Persona series is that it’s Shin Megami Tensei at high school, starring several students who have awoken to their innate power of Persona to fight demons. The same is true here. P2 is also, like P3/4, a lot more character-driven than main line SMT games.

There seems to be both a lot more and a lot less in P2 than in the later titles. There are several armor and weapon shops, a secret casino where you can play video poker and slots to win weapons and items, and a load of extra dialogue with your party members in each of these places (these don’t really add much except flavor, but it’s a nice addition anyway.) There’s a hunger mechanic that lets you give your party members temporary stat bonuses when they eat at one of the several restaurants in town. There’s also an interesting rumor system in the game whereby you can exchange rumors with certain characters and pay a detective agency in town (Kuzunoha Detective Agency, a nice reference for fans of the Devil Summoner SMT spinoff series) to spread those rumors that benefit your party. The “all rumors are true” theme that also crops up in Persona 4 a bit with the Midnight Channel is present in Innocent Sin and seems to be really prominent, both in the game mechanics and in the plot.

There are some elements of Persona 2 that will be familiar to P3/4 fans, like Igor's Velvet Room.  No fusion, though.

There are some elements of Persona 2 that will be familiar to P3/4 fans, like Igor’s Velvet Room. No fusion, though.

What’s not here is the Social Link system, which was created for Persona 3. P2 does set you up with a silent protagonist and a core party of characters that have good chemistry, like in P3 and P4, though. Fusion is also not present: new personas are gotten through a weird card-collecting system that I haven’t figured out yet. One nice thing about the Velvet Room, though, that P3/4 for whatever reason decided to lose, was a rotating soundtrack. As nice as “Aria for the Soul” is, I sure got sick of hearing it during my fusion ordeals in P3 and P4, but P2 mixes it up with a couple of other pieces, including Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1”. Which I’m extremely grateful for. Why P3 and P4 dropped everything else in favor of the Velvet Room’s main theme I can’t understand. It’s not like they could have had copyright problems with such old pieces; they’ve got to be in the public domain by now.

Enough of that. Pretty much everything else is good so far. About 6/7 hours in, the plot is engaging, and the art and music are really good, sort of how I’d imagine a Persona game on the Playstation would be. The only complaint about Persona 2 I might raise at this point is that combat is pretty slow – one of the early bosses I fought was quite easy to beat because he was barely doing any damage to my party, but he seemed to take forever to whittle down to 0 HP.

A proper review is forthcoming (whenever I finish the game, anyway) but so far I think most fans of the ultra-popular PS2 Persona games would enjoy Persona 2, despite ts pretty stark differences in gameplay mechanics from later Persona titles. Not to mention its relative graphic limitations. It was released in the 90s, after all, so you’ll have to give it a break on that count.

Persona 2 also has a kind of bizarre sense of humor like its successors.  That definitely helps.

Persona 2 also has a kind of bizarre sense of humor like its successors. That definitely helps.

A review of Shin Megami Tensei IV

2472251-box_smt4

After 5+ months of playing SMT4, I’ve finally finished it as far as I care to, meaning I got one out of the three endings. I could have easily blown through it in one or two weeks if I weren’t a student, but that’s life. My open memo and exams prevented me from doing much of anything else through the months of October, November and the first half of December.

Firstly, I can definitely say that SMT4 was worth what I paid for it. A lot of people were surprised at the $50 price tag on a 3DS title, but that $50 was for the deluxe package. And those of us who’d been waiting for an SMT4 for years were more than happy to throw our money at Atlus.

So fine. I’m a huge Shin Megami Tensei fan and I loved the game. But how does the game hold up in a more objective light?

smt4start

First, the story. It’s nothing special. The plot is the kind that anyone who’s played an older SMT game will recognize and the characters aren’t interesting – in fact, they’re so one-dimensional that I don’t think the designers even meant them to be interesting. SMT4 is an RPG, but it’s not about the story. Its gameplay is the main selling point.

So, the gameplay: it’s solid and mostly consists of the same old demon battles/negotiations and frustrating boss fights that SMT vets are already familiar with. Pretty much every fight in every game in the SMT series, including the Persona titles, hinges on the elemental strengths and weaknesses of your party and the party you’re fighting. As a result, most non-boss battles in SMT4 are extremely one-sided, and having a strong party that balances out its weaknesses is a must.

This is all pretty standard for the SMT series. But I do have a few complaints about SMT4 – aspects of the game that knock a couple of points off its score.

1) The pace

For the most part, the game has a pretty good pace – from the “late early” to the “late mid-game” sections, I guess; maybe from 8 hours to 40-50 hours in. But the early and late games are a different matter. SMT4 takes about 6 to 8 hours to really get started and to get interesting. This isn’t such an issue, but it could turn off gamers looking for an immediate hook. (By contrast, SMT3’s “hook” comes about half an hour into the game – so the makers don’t have an excuse here.)

The late game is a more serious issue. If you plan to pursue the Law or Chaos paths, you maybe won’t have to worry too much about it, but the Neutral ending piles requirements on the player that essentially force him to grind. Granted, Atlus added a paid DLC add-on that makes late-game grinding quick and easy, but we shouldn’t have to pay extra for it, should we? In any case, the grind that the Neutral path required of me really put me off. I’m a student, Atlus – I have shit to do other than play games. Okay?

2) The boss battles

SMT4 uses the Press Turn system that was created for SMT3: Nocturne, its PS2 predecessor. The way it works: your player character, your own demons and enemy demons have unique strengths and weaknesses to the different elements, including physical attacks. If you happen to hit an enemy with something he blocks, you lose two “turns” where you’d normally lose one. If it’s an element he repels or absorbs, you lose all your turns and he acts immediately. If, however, you hit him with in a weak spot – for example, he’s weak to wind and you hit him with wind – you only lose a “half turn”. So you can accumulate turns and wipe out most enemy parties before their turn comes around. SMT4 compounds this effect with its “smirk” mechanic, which will sometimes give a guaranteed crit to a demon (or the protagonist) if he hits a weak spot or gains a critical. The same goes for enemies, by the way: they can also crit/hit your weaknesses, gain more turns and wipe out your party thus.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

So what’s the problem? The bosses are the problem. Specifically some of the later bosses. The especially strong ones can and will abuse this system to wipe you out utterly. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal but for two issues:

– One of your allied NPCs also often fights with you, and he (or she) is completely fucking stupid when it comes to fighting. This means he’ll hit a boss with a physical attack after he’s cast Tetrakarn, a spell that reflects physical attacks. This means the boss will get a smirk on the next round, and he will crit and possibly destroy your party through no fault of your own (unless you get lucky and the boss wastes his smirk on a buff or a debuff spell or something similar.)

– Bosses will sometimes make the first move. This really, truly makes no sense to me. Nocturne and the other SMT titles always gave your party the first turn in a boss fight, the idea being that you could prepare yourself for his or her attacks by throwing up shields, buffing/debuffing, and so on. Here, however, a strong boss – and that’s a whole lot of the bosses in SMT4 – will, if he gets first shot, destroy your party or break it to the point that you won’t be able to recover on your turn. All you can do at this point is reset the game. Why Atlus chose to do this is beyond me, because all it adds to the game is pure frustration. It’s the difference between a tactically demanding and difficult boss fight and a downright cheap one. Sadly, quite a few of the boss fights in SMT4 comes down to either pure luck or brute force.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole.  Okay, not really a spoiler.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole. Okay, not really a spoiler.

3) The quests

Most of SMT4’s quests are interesting and make sense within the story, but a few are completely stupid and nonsensical. Just wait until you’re forced to take a picture of a particular building for some jerk for no reason at all. This won’t be a problem if you’re going Law or Chaos, but Neutral and just plain completionist players will find it almost impossible to manage without the help of a guide.

It seems like all I’ve done is complain about SMT4 for a thousand words. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s bad, though. It’s a very good JRPG. The music and art are classic SMT, even without the work of the amazing Shoji Meguro on the soundtrack. The gameplay is pretty fun, and anyone who’s obsessive and weird enough to want to recruit and fuse every demon in the game (like me) will love the good old negotiation system, which can produce some strange results. The story and atmosphere in SMT4 are lacking when compared to those of Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and some other SMT titles, but they’re not bad in themselves – just in comparison to older, better games in the line.

The fact that I find SMT4 lacking probably has a lot to do with my growing up with classic PS2 SMT titles. Nostalgia isn’t something one should consider when trying to fairly judge a game (or anything else for that matter) so I’m not in the best position to judge this title. Still, these are my honest opinions, six months after the fact. If you’re an SMT fan and you own a 3DS, you’ve already played SMT4. If you’re not a fan but the above sounds appealing to you, and you don’t mind some old-school style cheapness and frustration, I’d say go for it – the game might not be worth the unusually high sticker price to you, but it’s probably being sold used at this point. It will give you dozens of hours of gameplay, so you’ll be getting plenty of game for your dollar.