I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas! As we get ready for the beginning of a new year and before sharing my recap of 2015, let me talk to you about a couple of games I played recently.
I’m not sure if I’ve told you this already but Persona 4 has a deep impact in my life, which grants it a few points in the “favorite games ever” department. When it came out I was in a transitional period between graduating high-school and improving my grades to enter the college I actually wanted to in the first place (I dabbled around half a year in Aquatic Biology, which happened to be one of the best years in my life, but that’s a story for another day). It’s funny how I actually got a shitty ending my first time through (both the game and my attempts at entering the school I wanted), then tried to watch the complete ending online just to decide to play it again because I enjoyed it that damn much.
Thanks to the social link mechanic and some great writing, by the end I felt a real connection with the entire cast and was genuinely sad when I had to let them go. But I was pretty satisfied with that bittersweet ending, with keeping those beautiful high-school memories (even more so due to my actual high-school memories sucking) of an amazing time with an outstanding game.
I even had trouble picking up Golden again because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it as much as I remembered. Turns out it made me fall in love all over again.
Then the spin-off wave began. The collaborations with Arc System Works worked out really well, I believe. I played Persona 4 Arena, which along with being a really good fighting game actually happened to have a pretty interesting story, taking the concept of continuous growth and development intertwined with moments of doubt. I don’t have nearly as much praise for P4Ultimax’ story – nor for showing locked DLC-only characters on the selection menu – but maintaining the quality gameplay and having a bigger cast does have its merits.
After those it was time for Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, which I had more reservations about. Despite getting it when it came out, I put this game on hold for a while. My only experience with the Etrian Odyssey games was a demo of one of them and didn’t care enough to stick with it, but despite that I did expect this to be a good game and one to keep me engaged, at least on the gameplay front. What had me worried was the narrative aspect of it, and the quest to make every spin-off canon.
Not only did it use both casts from Persona 3 and 4, set the narrative right in the middle of each of them – so we’re clear, not after P3 and before P4 but in the middle of the story of each game – and the developers said it would be canon. With the Arena games and Dancing All Night that wouldn’t be a problem because the three of them set their events after the ending of the 4th installment, but here they really put themselves in a rather tricky situation: would they retcon an absurd amount of stuff or would this turn out to be a more inconsequential, dream-like scenario.
The second of those hypotheses came closer to be the case in the end, but not as irrelevant as one would expect. You see, as reviled as the “it’s all a dream” premise may be, it doesn’t need to automatically take away from the story. I’d argue that one of the most important feelings to take away from experiencing any narrative is that it had meaning, that it wasn’t inconsequential; and that is what’s usually harder to do in specific cases like this one. Thankfully the two characters created for this game, Rei and Zen, are the centerpieces of this story around which the other characters we know and love revolve around.
One of the most common observations people seem to make is that this game is mostly fanservice in the form of interactions between this considerably sized cast of characters, without much development going on outside of that. Sure, I’d agree that that is a major aspect of the game but some characters do get a really great arc – which in this case is both a positive and a negative. For example, Kanji and Ken. I was not only surprised but extremely glad to see Kanji get such and interesting development here, but unfortunately here it means it was all for naught, sort of, as their memories get wiped by the end. You can even get the Personas to achieve their ultimate forms, but I can’t say this felt anything other than something that had to happen to portray progression in the game.
Side-note: They had to somehow explain Shinjiro’s and Koromaru’s lack of an evolved Persona, which they definitely tried to…I’m just not sure if I’m more than just ok with it.
I’ll understand it if someone says that it’s exactly because of that aspect they didn’t really enjoy it and I can get behind it, but not without saying that Rei in particular was my favorite part of the story. Even more so when considering that I was feeling rather indifferent, but her characterization, backstory and arc are so grueling and emotional that I must highlight them. The way the labyrinths are constructed around her life and how she experienced those events is a really great piece of storytelling. And even if Zen didn’t grow on me as much, his contributions to the plot and Rei’s development should not be understated.
There’s on other character for whom these event s may have had a more lasting meaning and that is Margaret. This situation happens after the events that led to her sister’s disappearance, and you can see her debating with this knowledge of the course of the game. Due to her being an existence from the Velvet Room, if she gets to maintain her memories it wouldn’t affect that much in terms of the other games in regard to continuity, only adding more to her character, I’d say. Bottom-line is I enjoyed the narrative way more than I was expecting (it did manage to keep me generally engaged for over 80 hours).
On to other aspects of the game, I only played through the P4 side – which was more than enough, considering how much time it took me to complete it – so my interactions and such were more focused on them. You do get to play with all of the characters though; and this extensive number of party members made me decide to not do something that’s generally a given in these types of game: after everyone became available I chose my core five members stuck with them until the end. That meant Yu, Kanji, Shinji, Yukiko and Rei/Zen, with everyone else getting the dubious privilege of sitting at the entrance wearing Growth Rings. The way experience scales, it would take and absurd amount of time to get everyone to the same level, so no thanks.
Drawing your own map is cool though, I liked that. Didn’t care much for the changes from the regular Persona battle system, with how the Personas work, everyone getting a reserve one and whatnot. Oh, and the chibi-like visuals work so well for the characters I’m not even joking! Elizabeth in particular looks absolutely adorable in her nurse outfit, with Rise managing to be even cuter than her regular self. Every part of the school and the labyrinths have some really expressive art direction and presentation, with the soundtrack generally being up to par with what ATLUS has shown us over the years.
Speaking of music, on to the spin-off I was awaiting more than any other.
I have to get this out of the way first: apologies to those who worked on it but the faces on that opening animation are hideous! The intro song’s great though.
Right, Dancing All Night. One my favorite elements of Persona 4 – let’s say the series in general – is the sound. It sets the tone impeccably, with each track accompanying and expanding every scene and circumstance. So making a game whose premise is based around that particular strength of the original seemed very natural to me. And I really like rhythm games, so it has that going for it. And Rise’s sort of the main character here, there’s that too.
Now, speaking of sound and Rise, I must address something that affected my interest a bit, which was Laura Bailey not reprising her role. While this was not a first for the series, as more and more games featuring these characters were released more difficult it became to dissociate the voices from the characters. Erin Fitzgerald eventually began doing a great job with Chie, and Matt Mercer’s vocal similarities to Troy Baker really helped in Kanji’s case, but to me it got to a point where characters like Yosuke, Nanako and Rise couldn’t possibly be replaced.
Did this detract from my enjoyment? Yes it did. Not because of the new voice actress’ performance in itself, but because Laura Bailey was an integral part to tat character, which in a Rise-centered game makes things even harder. I plan to release a piece on voice actors in the future so I’ll leave my ramblings to that because now I want to talk about my love for this game!
My first ten hours of the game were spent in Free Dance mode, just clearing songs in various difficulties, getting money, buying costumes and stuff, having a great time. I was worried that the Vita’s screen may be too small for me really see the notes flying across the screen (which had happened before in the Project Diva games) but that is not the case has it is rather clear where everything is. Depending on the difficulty, of course.
Another worry of mine had to do with the remixed tracks. From what I gathered in the trailers some of them sounded like crap, but some just needed the whole song while others did grow up on me over time. A couple of them simply don’t work in my opinion, but it’s just one or two in a rather extensive list so it’s easily overlooked.
And what about those 3D models? They look OUTSTADING. I don’t want to imagine the pure bliss that would be a remake with these kinds of models because that won’t happen but man…that would be freaking sweet! Every single character looks great, but the cake goes to Chie and Rise in their Summer Vacation outfits, in case anyone is wondering..
After completing everything I could before starting the story, I jumped in. This time there’s this setting where you’re a separate entity from the characters in the game – you’re yourself, I guess – and you arrive in the Velvet Room, where Margaret is telling you about the events of this story. Seems like, for some reason, this year we had some story and character drive games with the “player” entity being shoved right in there. And why is my personal Velvet Room a damn disco?
Anyways, the plot here centers on Rise and some other idols from her agency. From what I had been hearing, this story was either serviceable or was really bad. Me personally, I thought it to be better than merely serviceable. While I may not be knowledgeable about the lifestyles of a pop idol in Japan, I am aware that there’s this really fine line between being able to be who you want to be and being the person the agency/fans want an expect you to be. This is a very appropriate theme for the Persona series and as I’ve come to expect from the development team, what we see get here is a pretty well-written game, with some dark tones to accentuate the character development.
I must admit that, at first, I did find the whole “We’ll dance so great we’ll convey our feelings to you!” to be kind of silly. But then I remembered that before we were conveying our feelings through sticks and blades to the face so dance doesn’t seem nearly as bad. And the way the each character dances exudes so much of their character that I couldn’t help but be appalled at how much thought went into their choreographies.
Which in turn lets us have things like this. You're welcome.
It’ll come up in my Favorite of 2015 blog post but I must say, P4D is one of my top games of this year. Not only from the experience and hours of value it got me, but from something else it managed to show me.
You see, Dragon Ball was my first foray into the anime world. It’s an important cornerstone of my childhood and is one of the things that reminds me that enough is enough, that one can have too much of a good thing. That GT was a really weak continuation goes without saying, but everything that is still coming out now just makes me think “let it die already, please”. In short, it made me appreciate that I’ll take the wish of something more due to loving those cherished memories than having something more just because it can exist.
I was afraid this could happen with Persona 4. As I said before, I love every one of the main characters in that game in their own way, and I didn’t need any other tellings of their adventures to keep me worried every time that the next would be the time I’d be finally done with them. But you know what? I’m not. Thanks to fine folk at ATLUS and to the people who’ve come to understand these characters so well and helped give them life I’m most grateful for not disgracing my precious memories.
Would I be fine with just the original game? Sure. But most of all, I’m glad I’m still enjoying virtual friendships formed 7 years ago. As Yu put it: “Yeah…they’re really cool”
Thank you for reading and keep being great.