Kickstopper: Barkley’s Botched Pass

Cast your mind back to the late 2000s. Ferretbrain was just heating up. Bush’s second term was cooling off, or actually finally done with. RPG Maker freeware games had become widespread enough that the cliches of shoddy ones were as recognisable as the tropes of the JRPG genre they tended to sit in. Developers like Tale of Tales tried to stretch the bounds of indie gaming with material like The Path. YouTube was young, and 4Chan was mostly known for trolling Scientology. Pepe the Frog was a benign, nonpartisan figure.

Among the creative minds using the developing Internet as a platform was Chef Boyardee or cboyardee. Named after a pasta brand, Chef had an ear for a good chiptune and was an early YouTube animator, with his surrealistic, nihilistic, and disturbingly violent take on Dilbert being perhaps his most enduringly famous work.

In early 2008, Chef was part of a team who released Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden – Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, a Game Maker-created JRPG that was a sequel to both the Sega Mega Drive basketball game Barkley: Shut Up and Jam and the weird Looney Tunes-meets-NBA movie Space Jam. Chef’s music, witty writing, and a slew of borrowed and tweaked graphical assets combined to make an absurd parody game whose sense of humour, whilst now badly dated in some respects (and in some respects inappropriate at the time) found a cult following.

Then in 2012, when Kickstarter was experiencing its post-Double Fine Adventure boom, Tale of Game’s (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) ran a Kickstarter for a sequel, The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 – Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa.

It is now eight years later, and it seems likely that a finished version of the game will never come out.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Barkley’s Botched Pass”

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?

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When Summoning Demons Becomes Routine

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.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is the sequel to Lucifer’s Call (AKA Nocturne), and is the first of the core Shin Megami Tensei series to be developed exclusively for a handheld platform – specifically, the Nintendo DS. The traditional silent protagonist this time around is a member of an elite United Nations military expedition into the mysterious Schwarzwelt – a rapidly expanding dimensional abnormality centred on the South Pole. Driving into the Schwarzwelt in massive, town-sized, super high-tech trucks (which can fly and have AI control units), the investigation team soon finds itself stuck in the Schwarzwelt. The Red Sprite, the truck that the player character is on, is the only one of the four super-trucks that made it into the Schwarzwelt intact – and soon discovers that the different regions inside the Schwarzwelt seem to be manifestations of the various cultural forces like war, consumerism, and so on that exert a powerful grip on the global consciousness of the near future. To survive out there, the protagonist and his allies have to use their Demonicas – specially designed battlesuits which, amongst other things, enable their users to communicate with and summon demons to aid them in battle.

The subsequent plot is much like any of the core-series Shin Megami Tensei games – in other words, much more predictable and conventional than, say, Persona 4 or something like that. The cosmological conflict turns out to be between Law and Chaos, as in the first two games (plus some other sources whose identities I forget but probably aren’t very important), and as in the previous game each alignment (aside from Neutrality) ends up having one of the major supporting characters swearing undying allegiance to it, with the consequence that if you side with the opposing alignment (or go Neutral) you have to smack them down in a boss fight. It turns out that the cosmological events surrounding the game are yet another apocalypse, and if you side with one alignment or the other then when you win the game the Earth is fundamentally transformed whilst if you plump for the Neutral option then your prize when you win is the Earth not changing in any appreciable way. To be honest, it feels like Atlus makes the plot for core Shin Megami Tensei games by taking the same old formula each time and slapping a new aesthetic on it, whilst the Persona games and other Megami Tensei spin-off series tend to be much more original.

As far as gameplay goes, Strange Journey is consciously a throwback to previous generations of Megami Tensei games; there is an absolute and total focus on exploring dungeons, the exploration is done from a first-person viewpoint, and you go around fighting things and occasionally recruiting demons to your cause (and mashing them together to make funky new demons). Because you’re playing on a DS, you always have the option of closing the console and doing something else when you’re bored of dungeon crawling, which I suspect is the reason that I persisted with the game as long as I did, but it’s notably more user-friendly than the first Persona’s PSP port. The DS touchscreen is used to display an automap during exploration and monster stats during combat, making both processes much more streamlined.

The fusion system for the first time includes a neat little password system, where you can generate passwords from your customised and levelled-up demons with other players can input into their copies of the game in order to summon the demons in question. This is actually a much friendlier way of handling demon-trading than using Wi-fi because the password system doesn’t require you to know another DS owner with a copy of the game in real life (which may be a problem if you live in areas where the game wasn’t really sold in shops – I had to get it on import) in order to get access to people’s demons, and it also means that walkthrough creators have been able to provide codes for powerful demons you can get past difficult parts of the game with.

Probably the most irritating aspect of the exploration process – outside of the game’s tendency to throw secret doors, teleporters, invisible walls, invisible floors leading out over yawning chasms, and random pit traps at you, but all that’s fairly common old school dungeoneering stuff – is the way the game doesn’t display crucial NPCs to you unless you are stood on the very square they occupy, which means that effectively you have to go out and make sure to step on every single square meter of every dungeon level in order to find clues and progress. Aside from that, by and large the dungeoneering aspect of the game is quite entertaining and fun, which is good because that’s honestly all there is to it; the plot is, as I said, predictable, the NPC interactions feel artificial and perfunctory, and the usual rich symbolism and allegory that accompanies your average MegaTen game seems kind of shallow and this time around.

As far as attempts to make an old-school dungeon exploration game on the DS go, it’s a good effort, but I found myself giving up close to the end. To be fair, I’d enjoyed the game enough to sink 60 hours into it. But I hit a point where I really couldn’t face investing a fraction of that time to get to the final boss and beat ’em. Towards the end of the game, the dungeon design goes from “nicely intricate” to “ridiculously sprawling” to “tediously, boringly convoluted”, and towards the end plot events are sufficiently widely spaced out so as to rob the story of any momentum it had gained up to that point. Furthermore, a series of really lame cheap-shot boss fights (featuring bosses possessed of multiple different instakill powers) put me off the otherwise fun combats for good. And on top of all that, after you’ve played any particular videogame for 60 hours it had better be truly exceptional to hold your interest for another five minutes, and Strange Journey just isn’t on the top tier of dungeon crawlers. It’s worth a look if, like me, you’re a major MegaTen fan and you like having a dungeon crawl game you can pick up and put down as and when you feel like it, but don’t expect anything of the calibre of recent Persona games.

Teddie’s Got a TV Eye On Me

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.

So, after kicking off the Persona series with the first game and thoroughly reinventing it with the third game and its mix of classic dungeon-crawling action and slice-of-life social simulation, the Shin Megami Tensei team were riding high. For their Playstation 2 swansong, Persona 4, they opted for a refinement of the formula which worked so well for Persona 3. This time, our nameless protagonist (Jerry Cornelius, in my playthrough) has parents who are not dead, but are going abroad for work for a year. So, they ship their mysterious, silent, grey-haired son off to the sleepy rural town of Inaba to spend the year in the care of his uncle Dojima, a detective in the local police force who has been bringing up his six-year-old daughter Nanako by himself ever since her mother died in a hit-and-run accident.

Even before the protagonist arrives in Inaba, however, there’s signs something is up; on the train down, he dreams of the Velvet Room, where Igor is once again waiting with a contract binding him to take on the consequences of his decisions for the coming year, along with his new assistant Margaret, sister of Elizabeth from Persona 3 who’s mysteriously vanished. (This time around, incidentally, the Velvet Room is a plush limousine travelling through fog-enshrouded darkness, which is much less obviously Lynchian than most of its previous appearances in the ga- oh wait.) Once he arrives, things only get stranger. Rumours proliferate of the Midnight Channel, a mysterious TV station which only appears when it’s raining and which is supposed to show the face of your true love. A television presenter who had been caught having an affair with a politician and had come to the town’s historic inn to get away from it all is found dead, dangling from, of all places, a TV aerial; some time later, Saki, a girl from the school the protagonist is attending in Inaba and who was featured on television after she discovered the presenter’s body, is found dead under similar circumstances.

Continue reading “Teddie’s Got a TV Eye On Me”