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”

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?

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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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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”

Lucifer’s Call Will Not Be Put On Hold

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.

Although I’ve played the first and third Persona games, until now I hadn’t played any games in their parent series, Shin Megami Tensei. That changed with Shin Megami Tensei III: Lucifer’s Call – called Nocturne outside of Europe, and the first Shin Megami Tensei game in either the main series or the various subseries to get a European release. Describing something as being like another thing “on acid” is a lazy habit, but Lucifer’s Call really is like Persona 3 on acid, even though it came before the other game. It lacks the daytime school narrative of the latter-day Persona games and therefore loses its moorings in everyday reality; the protagonist is transformed into something entirely unlike the teenage schoolboy he was and travels across a mutated, hallucinatory Tokyo on a quest not to discover the meaning of life, but to impose a meaning on life.

Our protagonist on this occasion – who never speaks, as is traditional in Shin Megami Tensei games – is a high school student with a passing interest in videogames and the occult. At the start of the game accompanies his classmates Chiaki Hayasaka and Isamu Nitta in order to visit their teacher, Yuko Takao, who’s asked them to come and see her in the local hospital. On the way to the hospital the protagonist encounters Jyoji Hijiri, a journalist working for an occult magazine who’s covering the riotous local activities of the Gaea organisation, a doomsday cult that apparently has connections to the hospital. At the hospital, the protagonist and his friends find that Yuko is missing and split up to find her. Our hero finds her, but she’s not sick – not physically, at least. She’s in the company of Hikawa, the menacing leader of the Gaea cult, who almost unleashes his occult powers against the protagonist but for her intervention.

Then she takes the protagonist to the roof of the hospital to look at the beautiful view of Tokyo it offers – and she calmly and patiently explains that she and Hikawa believe that the world has become corrupt and drained of all vitality, and must be destroyed and made anew in order to reinvigorate it. So they’ve done the logical thing and engineered the Conception – the end of the world.

Which then happens.

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Grind Them To Dust With Your Bare Hands

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.

The current kings of the handheld gaming arena, the Nintendo DS and the PSP, both enjoy a potent and powerful advantage over their predecessors, and that is that they were designed by people who understand that it’s often necessary to stop playing games and go and do other things. Thus, both can be placed in a state of dormancy at a moment’s notice. Close the lid on the DS, or briefly nudge the power switch on the PSP, and they’ll enter a state of peaceful dormancy; wake them up again, and you can pick up your game precisely from where you left off. This overdue liberation from the tyranny of save points is more than welcome – it means that the systems are perfect for playing on the train or bus, or whilst waiting for an appointment, or in other spare moments of the day. It means that there’s no excuse for paying more attention to your handheld console than to other people; “hang on, just let me save the game” doesn’t cut it. And it means that certain games, which might otherwise risk becoming repetitive and tedious to modern audiences, can enjoy a new leash of life.

Take the classic Japanese CRPG. Both the Nintendo DS and PSP have been host to a slew of remakes of classic games in the JRPG genre, and I suspect part of the reason is that, thanks to the way people approach the DS and PSP, the large amount of grinding many such games require doesn’t seem like so much of a burden as it might previously have. Sitting down in front of the TV, turning the PS2 or XBox 360 on, and spending the next few hours solidly murdering goblins to get my party up to a sufficient level to fight the next boss is something that, now that I’m no longer a full-time student, I’m increasingly less inclined to do; with gaming time more rationed than it used to be, if I’ve managed to set aside more than about half an hour to devote to a game then I want something to bloody happen in the game aside from a series of meaningless random encounters.

On the other hand, if I’m just fiddling with the DS for half an hour before going to sleep at night, then that’s a whole different story. In that case, the fact that I’ve spent the last three hours of game time doing exactly the same thing is less significant, because I don’t experience those three hours all at once. By breaking up the grinding into tiny, manageable chunks the portable format makes it digestible. The downside of this is that the plot can unfold at a comparatively glacial pace – on the other hand, I personally find that if the plot is decent, then if I have to wait longer to unlock the next part that makes the reward all the sweeter, whereas if the plot is rubbish it isn’t a great loss if the gameplay is good enough to make up for that. And if the gameplay is not good enough to make up for a lacklustre story, then I’m not likely to stick with the game very long anyway.

Continue reading “Grind Them To Dust With Your Bare Hands”