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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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.

The Secret of Good Clicking

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.

I have to admit, I found my recent experience with Barrow Hill more than a little discouraging. What if the traditionalist adventure game genre had sunk into a deep pit of mediocrity? What if fans’ desires to see new games published following 15-30 year old gameplay mechanics were leading them to heap blind praise upon anything even barely competent, eliminating the need for designers to actually be good at their job?

Luckily, it turns out that not all games embraced by the likes of or, stalwarts of point-and-click nostalgia who gave Barrow Hill a free ride, are third-rate knock-offs. Secret Files: Tunguska, by German developers Fusionsphere and Animation Arts, is a third-person point-and-click adventure heavily influenced by the first two Broken Sword games, which makes up for a cliched plot and lacklustre writing with excellent gameplay, learning lessons from the genre’s long history whilst addressing the most common problems with the format.

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A Hollow Experience

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.

Perhaps the hype was to blame. I’d heard that Time Hollow, a time travel themed adventure game for the Nintendo DS, was written by the same guy (Junko Kawano) who wrote Shadow of Memories – AKA Shadow of Destiny in the US – a time travel themed adventure game for the PS2. Shadow of Memories was brilliant and featured some of the best writing I’ve ever seen in an adventure game – not in terms of the dialogue, which was hampered by a lacklustre translation, but in terms of its narrative structure, which managed to incorporate an impressive number of outcomes. It’s one of the few adventure games out there with genuine replay value – although any particular playthrough doesn’t take especially long to get through, you’ll want to see all the endings because the plot takes you down all sorts of strange and mutually exclusive paths, as the main character’s efforts to prevent his own murder by meddling in time creates, eliminates, or irrevocably alters various crucial plot elements.

So perhaps it’s my fault for expecting the same sort of thing from Time Hollow. If you want an unusual, nonlinear adventure game with multiple outcomes, Time Hollow really isn’t going to deliver that.

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The Handheld’s Heavenly Game

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.

Is it just me, or has the Nintendo DS become the new home for the Dragon Quest series? Dragon Quest IX is a DS exclusive, as were the spin-offs Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime and Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker (the latter of which is a kind of dull Pokemon ripoff), and Square Enix even saw fit to rerelease Dragon Quest IV on the system – the first time that particular game got a European and Australian release.

Clearly, the remake was enough of a hit to make it worth another go – hence the rerelease of 1992’s Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride on the DS, and the upcoming DS remake of 1995’s Dragon Quest VI: The Realms of Reverie – the two main series Dragon Quest games released on the SNES, and the final two parts of the Zenithian Trilogy begun by Dragon Quest IV, the first time either game has become available outside of Japan at all.

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Professor Layton and the Balanced Hint System

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.

Let’s not mince words. There is an awful lot of shovelware on the Nintendo DS, and by far the majority of it is in the puzzle genre. Ranging from Brain Training rip-offs which wrap stale puzzles in a thin veneer of being good for you to Sudoku and crossword collections that don’t really offer many more puzzles than their paper equivalents, the DS catalogue is groaning with games which don’t really offer any functionality that you couldn’t get from a pencil and one of those puzzle books you can buy in the newsagents’. It’s easy to see why there’s so many of them – I can’t imagine your average Sudoku program takes much more than a week to program the interface and an afternoon to program a routine for generating the puzzles. And even if only a fraction of the DS audience is idiot enough to use a £100 handheld console to perform an activity you could do with a 10p pencil and the puzzles page of a free newspaper, it’s still worth doing if you’re likely to earn back more than the pitiful amount of money you invested in the thing in the first place.

This is why Professor Layton and the Curious Village is such a surprise. It’s a puzzle game where the actual puzzles could have been presented as a straight-up list at a fraction of the cost. However, developers Level 5 have refused to cut corners and instead invested time, money, care, and attention into the game, with the result that it rises above a simple puzzle collection.

Continue reading “Professor Layton and the Balanced Hint System”