Ferretnibbles 2 – Beren and Lúthien, Shin Megami Tensei on the 3DS, and Sithrak Tracts

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, here’s another set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, they’re all penned by me, but nibbles from others are always welcome at the usual editorial address. Today’s nibbles concern the latest and greatest in posthumous Tolkien releases, demon-summoning JRPGs, and fantasy porn comic spin-offs.

Beren and Lúthien

Christopher Tolkien is over 90 years old, and he states in his commentary in Beren and Lúthien that he suspects it will be the last book he releases of his father’s Middle-Earth material. If this is so, then he is leaving us on a strong note, because the approach taken here is extremely interesting and makes a virtue out of the fragmentary material he has to work with.

As explained by Christopher in The Children of Húrin, his previous book focusing on a particular legend of Middle-Earth’s First Age, J.R.R. Tolkien thought that there were three stories of that era that were substantial enough to conceivably stand as distinct tales in their own right as opposed to incidents in a wider story. One was the tale of how the hidden elven citadel of Gondolin fell to the forces of Morgoth, one was the doom of the children of Húrin, one was the story told here of how Beren (a human in most tellings, though a rival strand of the elven peoples in the story’s earliest version) ended up falling in love with the elven princess Lúthien, and how her father Thingol challenged Beren to go steal a Simaril from the crown of Morgoth if he wanted her hand in marriage. This was meant to be an insult, since the task was held to be impossible – and yet it was done, though at great price, with Beren losing his hand and even his life and Lúthien only winning him back from the clutches of death at the cost of giving up her elven immortality to share in the fate of mortal men (thus setting a model for Arwen’s similar sacrifice for Aragorn in later aeons).

As with The Children of Húrin, the presentation here is the result of a bit of literary archaeology by Christopher Tolkien – but whereas in the case of Húrin the extant writings were substantial enough that Christopher could massage them into what amounted to a new novel, the various writings on Beren and Lúthien were a much more diverse bunch, with several takes on the story being provided over the years, and written in a mixture of prose and poetry at that. Thus, rather than trying to reconcile them into a single continuous novel, Christopher instead gives us a book that tracks the development of the story, from its first incarnation to its more developed version.

Continue reading “Ferretnibbles 2 – Beren and Lúthien, Shin Megami Tensei on the 3DS, and Sithrak Tracts”

Ferretnibbles 1 – Die, Monster Die!, Dragon Quest VII, and Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, I’m premiering here the first set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, they’re all penned by me, but nibbles from others are always welcome at the usual editorial address. Today’s nibbles concern a mostly-forgotten Lovecraftian cinematic error and two remakes of classic RPG videogames. The first one is about as long as I’d want a nibble to be before spinning it off as its own article (and indeed, I did hesitate over whether to put it out as a nibble or a standalone); the latter two offer shorter pieces to showcase just how little a nibble can be.

Continue reading “Ferretnibbles 1 – Die, Monster Die!, Dragon Quest VII, and Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition”

I’m a Phan of Their Old Stuff…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

During the console wars of the 1980s and 1990s, different companies soon developed different specialisations, based in part on the limitations of the hardware they produced, in part on the developers they could lure to work for them, and in part on the way they wanted to target the marketing of the console. Perhaps this so many of the console RPGs of the era we remember fondly hailed from the NES or SNES – Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, Shin Megami Tensei, all the major series from the major developers were Nintendo-exclusives.

The major exception was the Phantasy Star series, the most famous CRPG to appear on Sega systems. In particular, the first four games in the series craft a saga telling the long-term history of a particular star system which in terms of its plot was as ambitious as anything other CRPG series were producing at the time, if not more so – and also had a science fantasy aesthetic that set it apart. Thankfully, in these days of widespread emulation and companies cashing in on their back catalogues by releasing cheap downloads or compilations of their old games, it’s now eminently possible to experience the early Phantasy Star series again – but is it worth it?

Phantasy Star

Released on the Sega Master System at the end of 1987, Phantasy Star was amongst the first clutch of JRPGs developed in response to the first Dragon Quest game launched the genre – it came out in the same month as the first Final Fantasy game, and a few months after the first Megami Tensei game, and like all of them it draws a lot on the Dragon Quest formula but also updates it in its own fashion.

The setting for the game is the Algol star system, the habitable planets of which are the verdant world of Palma, the ice world Dezoris, and the desert world of Motavia (yes, you do get to fight sandworms on Motavia). Palma and its colonies on Dezoris and Motavia is ruled by King Lassic, a formerly benevolent ruler who has become more and more tyrannical as the years have passed after coming under the influence of a sinister cult who promise immortality to their followers. At the start of the game Nero, who’s the brother of the protagonist Alis, is murdered by Lassic’s goons (who are, of course, dressed like Imperial Stormtroopers) as a warning to others not to meddle in Lassic’s affairs. Enraged by the death of her brother, Alis takes up his sword and vows bloody revenge against Lassic, a quest she is soon joined on by the warrior Odin, the psyker Noah, and the cuddly cat thingy Myah.

Continue reading “I’m a Phan of Their Old Stuff…”

That’s Q-uite Enough, Atlus

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Persona Q is an old-school dungeon-exploring RPG for the Nintendo 3DS which mashes up the style of the Etrian Odyssey series of dungeon crawlers with the world of the Persona series.

The game involves a team-up between the characters of Persona 3 and Persona 4, who find themselves plucked out of their respective timelines midway through those stories and caught in a strange otherworldly realm that superficially resembles the Persona 4 gang’s school during their cultural festival – albeit one where the different stands conceal entrances to vast labyrinths occupied by Shadows, and where there is a tall, ancient clock tower at the centre of the courtyard that isn’t there in real life. At first they are separate – you get to choose whether to go with the main character of 4 or 3 as your main character, and start out with the relevant game’s party members – but by the end of the first dungeon, the two teams meet up, after which you get to use any of them in your party provided that your selected main character is part of it.

But they aren’t the only ones you meet – you also encounter the mysterious Zen and Rei, a duo of inseparable insomniacs. At the end of each labyrinth, some strange little cast-off artifact may be found – each of which brings the summoned Persona-users closer to freedom, and Zen and Rei closer to recovering their memories. But what is Rei so utterly terrified of remembering?

Continue reading “That’s Q-uite Enough, Atlus”

Dragon Warriors? Dynasty Quest?

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Omega Force, the studio behind the Dynasty Warriors series of game, has developed a fine byline in applying Dynasty Warriors-inspired gameplay to other franchises. It’s rather inspired, then, that they should have got together with Square Enix to give that treatment to the Dragon Quest series. There’s already a Dragon Quest Heroes spin-off series of action RPGs based on the series, after all, and the adorable monster designs from Akira Toriyama has long been a strength of that series and provides plenty of fodder to create adversaries worthy of the battlefield – plus the whole “one character against an army who builds up tension to unleash special moves” gameplay of the Dynasty Warriors series fits the the fantasy JRPG genre nicely.

The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below is set in a world where the various cute Dragon Quest monsters and human beings live together peacefully. The player character is a (male or female at the player’s option) captain in the personal guard of Doric, King of Arba, who presides over this happy society. (Whichever captain you chose not to make your main character is still available to you as one of your party members.)

Continue reading “Dragon Warriors? Dynasty Quest?”

Nirvana In Mirrorshades

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If you’ve enjoyed the Persona games – I’ve previously provided reviews of the first, third and fourth – then odds are that sooner or later you’re going to want to explore the wider Shin Megami Tensei series of demon summoning-themed JRPGs. What you discover is a mixed bag; most of the other branches of the series eschew the high school life simulation visual novel and dating sim influences of the Persona games (and only Persona 3 and Persona 4 actually focus on that), and whilst sometimes their surreal takes on fairly standard JRPG plotlines can be quite interesting, other times the games can get bogged down in repetitiveness and tedium. On top of that, there’s a sprawling morass of side-series which, like Persona, take the demon-summoning concept and put their own spin on it.

One of these is Digital Devil Saga – not to be confused with Digital Devil Story, the strapline for the original NES-era Megami Tensei games. Digital Devil Saga was a Playstation 2-exclusive duo of games which emerged after Lucifer’s Call – the sole game of the core Shin Megami Tensei series to get a PS2 release – and before Persona 3 came along to both redefine the gameplay of the Persona series and radically expand the bounds of what you could do in a Shin Megami Tensei game.

Consequently, what you might to expect to deal with here – both from the title being highly reminiscent of the original series and the fact that it preceded Persona 3 – is a more traditional Shin Megami Tensei game, and for the most part that’s what you get. So any of y’all who were hoping for another life simulation will probably be better off waiting for the recently-announced Persona 5.

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Handheld Tear-Jerkers

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In some respects, the Nintendo 3DS couldn’t have come sooner; lately I’ve been finding the DS shelves at my preferred game shops increasingly clogged up with an enormous tidal wave of shovelware. A while back, before Game decided to have a purge, the PC games section was dominated by various varieties of hidden object game (potentially a side-effect of most canny developers giving up on the idea of selling boxed PC games in shops in the first place); at points it’s seemed that the DS selection has been getting that bad. If the 3DS is substantially more expensive to develop for then hopefully that will mean the market isn’t swamped to the point where shovelware crowds high-quality games off the shelves.

The crappy selection of games currently out for the DS is particularly unfortunate, because I think the best console games often come out comparatively late in a console’s life cycle. Once you hit a point where developers are both comfortable enough with the system in question to really be able to put it through its paces, and the prospect of an upcoming new generation of consoles make them want to push the constraints of the old hardware in order to compete with the flashier offerings on the horizon, sometimes wonderful things can happen. The first Silent Hill game is one of the most visually arresting games on the PS1 and came out barely a year before the PS2 arrived; the PS3 had been out for years when Persona 4 came out on the PS2 and amazed me with how good the graphics on the old system could still be.

So I was quite glad when a while back I was able to score the latest sequels to some of my favourite series on the DS, and found that in both cases they pushed the graphical capabilities of the system to the limit. On top of that, I don’t know why it is but for some reason both of them seemed to take a more pessimistic, downbeat stance than is usually typical for downbeat games, which got me thinking about downer gaming in general.

Writing games that make people feel sad or bad about the things that happen on them is kind of a tightrope. Spec Ops: The Line, I would say, is a superb example of a game which did it right, not least because whilst it does teeter towards the trap of blaming players for attempting to engage with the scenario that a game presents them with (if a game gives you no option other than to kill people, is it really your fault when you kill those people? Is it really fair to expect people to play a game without partaking of the core activity of the game?), but it also spends just as much time analysing how games of its ilk are put together and presented by the industry in the first place.

It’s crammed to the gills with set pieces that the Call of Duty clones of the world unimaginatively cough up time and again, and has a perfect knack for making them very slightly fucked up, and generally getting across the idea that once you are in the midst of a full war situation then things are already fucked and nobody is getting out clean, and that’s not something to cheer or celebrate or valorise or treat as being a Good or Strong thing; instead, the capacity of a human being to do awful things because they are persuaded that they are the Hard But Necessary things is, in Spec Ops, something to deplore.

However, for every Spec Ops: The Line that comes out there’s a dozen indie attempts at Challenging Your Preconceptions which fall flat like The Path or Dear Esther, and two or three major league developers revealing the extent to which their artistic pretensions overreach their craft, as happened with Mass Effect 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV. And yet here are two games in series which had previously proven quite cheerful which had me genuinely engaged and mooping away at the moop-worthy things that happen in them, and they make the whole thing look easy. What gives?

Continue reading “Handheld Tear-Jerkers”