I (digitally) imported Hatsune Miku: Project Diva 2nd

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f (the Vita edition of the 2013 PS3 release) is my current favourite game of 2014. I tried the demo on a whim and was immediately hooked; I went on to put upwards of 25 hours into it, and still come back to it regularly despite earning every gameplay trophy. I’m not going to go into too much detail about my love for Project Diva f except to say that it’s got a mix of solid gameplay, rewarding difficulty, eclectic music, and unabashed Japanese absurdity that really spoke to me.

Since getting into Project Diva f and realizing I’d have to wait a while for Project Diva F 2nd and Persona 4: Dancing All Night, I’d been considering delving back into the three Japan-only PSP releases that preceded it. Last week, I finally bit the bullet: I set up a Japanese PSN account, commandeered my pack-in 4GB Vita memory card, and ordered a ¥5,000 PSN card from Japan Codes. Using a Japanese PSN account on a Vita is a bit of a hassle — you have to swap memory cards and reset the system to factory settings each time you change accounts — but it’s hard to hold that against Sony when it’s such an obscure and legally-questionable thing to do. I figure it’s probably a five-minute process, though I have yet to swap back to my Canadian account.

I had originally planned on starting from the beginning with Project Diva, but decided to skip to Project Diva 2nd when I learned that the ability to use the d-pad and face buttons interchangeably wasn’t added until the sequel. I’d grown very used to alternating inputs — that is, entering [X, X, X, X, O, O, O, O] as [X, ▼, X, ▼, O, ▶, O, ▶] — and it was going to be a very difficult habit to break. Project Diva also seems to be somewhat notorious for its dicey framerate, and considering how questionable 2nd’s framerate can be, it must be pretty ridiculous. Dreamy Theater 2ndProject Diva 2nd’s PS3 remaster, which costs ¥4,000 and bafflingly requires the PSP game to play — includes all of the songs from the first game, so if I really want to go back to them, I’ve got that option open to me.

Project Diva 2nd is full of Japanese text, but it’s also a rhythm game, so it’s pretty self-explanatory. Most of the the menu items and song titles are written in katakana or English, so it’s reasonably easy to navigate with a katakana chart and a bit of patience. I’m using this game as an opportunity to learn katakana in earnest, and I’ve already picked up enough to recognize a few words without cheating. I figured out that that メルト (me-ru-to) was “melt” on my own, and while that’s not a particularly amazing achievement, it felt pretty good for a few days of practice.

Project Diva 2nd vis-à-vis Project Diva f

Project Diva 2nd isn’t as good as Project Diva f, and in a lot of ways, playing it has increased my appreciation for Project Diva f. I’ve been having a pretty good time with it, but the song selection isn’t as good, the charts aren’t as well-designed, the difficulty ceiling is pretty low, and the framerate is sometimes rough enough to impact gameplay. Project Diva f only has a few songs I don’t care for, while Project Diva 2nd has a fair number that aren’t appealing to me. I don’t hate any of them, but I’ll probably end up avoiding a bunch, which wasn’t my experience with Project Diva f.

This is one of the loading screens. I don't understand either, but I do always smile when it comes up.

I do very much appreciate the lack of star notes in Project Diva 2nd. In Project Diva f, you hit star-shaped notes by swiping your finger on the screen (or tilting the right stick on the PS3 version) — a gameplay mechanic that I learned to deal with, but never really enjoyed. When they’re coming at you slowly, they’re trivial because of their extremely forgiving hit zones; when they’re coming at you in quick succession, they’re seemingly impossible to keep up with without scribbling indiscriminately. The PSP games have nothing of the sort, and I think they’re better for it.

Project Diva 2nd is an easier game than Project Diva f. For the most part, I’ve found that the extreme (hardest) difficulty is the only one that’s putting up a real challenge. In Project Diva 2nd, I’ve found myself getting high ranks in hard mode on my first try, and passing songs on extreme on my first try; in Project Diva f, most of the extreme charts are out of reach, or at best barely achievable.

Graphics and performance

While Project Diva 2nd apparently performs much better than Project Diva, the framerate can still be kind of rough. This is the kind of game in which the performance very much depends on where the camera is pointing, and that inconsistency might actually be more annoying than predictable choppiness. My sense is that the core hit detection runs independently of the graphics rendering, so it’s never game-breaking if you’re taking your cues from the audio, but I would have felt a lot better about it if the interface also ran independently of the background graphics (FFVII-style).

To its credit, Project Diva 2nd looks great for a PSP game — this is the first PSP game I’ve played, and it far exceeded my expectations for the platform. The videos generally aren’t as ambitious as those in Project Diva f, but that’s to be expected given the hardware limitations and lower budget. The Vita emulation also seems flawless, and if there’s any input lag going on, it’s trivial enough that I quickly acclimatized to it. I was a little worried about timing issues, and I’m glad it didn’t turn out to be a problem.

Song selections

I’ve got my issues with Project Diva 2nd’s song selection as a whole, but there’s some really good tracks in here. Here’s five that stand out. Apologies for the quality of some of them — it’s really hard to find good-quality captures of this game on YouTube:

Kokoro (Heart) / ココロ

This is probably my favourite song in the game. It starts slow, but once it kicks into gear (I cued up the video), it’s super catchy and a bunch of fun to play.

PoPiPo (Vegetable Juice) / ぽっぴっぽー

Beware: the audio in this video has some moderate clipping issues.

Be sure to stick around for the second verse, in which Hatsune Miku makes a charmingly Engrish case for vegetarianism. Despite it’s absurdity, this song is actually quite fun to play, and managed to stick itself in my head for half a day.

Moon

Some nice rhythmic synthpop. The video is stylish and more ambitious than a lot of the stuff in Project Diva 2nd, though it’s also a great example of how wider shots tend to sink the framerate.

Innocence

This one’s just plain fun to play. The electropop songs tend to be my favourites, as they’ve got strong beats and predictable note patterns. Also, check out that sweet Space Channel 5: Part 2 costume!

Gigantic Girl / 巨大少女

This is one of the better songs in the game, but even if it wasn’t, I pretty much had to include it for the amazing video. It’s also worth noting how easy it is — it’s an extreme chart that would have been on the lower end of the hard difficulty in Project Diva f.

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Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate: Hunting diary #1

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate has been calling my name for months. I’ve come close to booting it up on a number of occasions, but the associated learning curve and time commitment always stopped me from pulling the trigger. After an ill-fated attempt at getting into Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (I'm sorry, Dragon's Dogma fans/zealots!), I figured “hey, I liked Dragon’s Dogma’s monster hunting, why not cut out the middle man and try some Monster Hunting?”

MH3U makes a questionable first impression: a character creation screen featuring some of the ugliest faces this side of the Nintendo 64. I picked what seemed to be the only female face that didn’t look deformed, and was fairly unceremoniously dropped into Moga Village, where I was asked to go on some pretty mundane MMO-style “kill X mobs” or “collect Y items” quests. These early quests are pretty unsatisfying and not at all representative of what Monster Hunter is all about, and it’s a bummer that the game starts off on such a mundane note.

Weapon selection

On the other hand, the early rote missions were a good opportunity to mess with the game’s 12 weapon types. As far as I can tell, it’s strongly recommended to focus on one or two weapons, so I spent a few hours experimenting and narrowing things down.

The Switch Axe was a quick favourite. Its two modes give it a great sense of versatility — Axe Mode has great reach, higher mobility, and a powerful “hack n’ slash” infinite combo; Sword mode does more damage and has a ludicrous burst attack, but severely limits movement speed. Unlike most (all?) of the other weapons — which seem to encourage you to play a very specific pattern and role — the Switch Axe feels like it's suited to a wide variety of situations and playstyles. Unlike, say, the Hammer, there’s also a lot of mechanical variety to the Switch Axe — it has quite a few unique combos and options, including the ability to combo between the two modes. It also looks pretty cool, and gives me a way to cut off monster tails for vital crafting materials.

On the other end of the complexity spectrum, I ended up liking the Hammer a bunch — so much so that I’m leaning toward it as a main weapon. I almost didn’t bother giving it a shot because I figured it would be slow and cumbersome, but it turned out to be one of the most mobile melee weapons in the game. Its bread-and-butter is a charged slam attack, but unlike the Great Sword, charging doesn’t force you commit — there’s a half-second animation to begin the charge, but once it’s started, you’re free to move around and line up your attack for as long as the stamina bar allows. When the opportunity presents itself, it feels great to get out the full stationary 3-attack golf-swing combo, but it’s far more common for me to start a charge at medium range, unleash it on a monster’s head, then immediately cancel into a dodge roll. Even its sheathe animation is quick, which in my experience makes a huge difference when it comes to getting in a quick weapon sharpening or potion use. I love the mobility and hit-and-run style of the hammer, and no other weapon has felt quite as satisfying to hit with.

Picking a couple of main weapons allowed me to get a less interesting aspect of the game out of the way early: weapon upgrade planning. I was advised to decide on weapon upgrade targets as soon as possible, and as much as I resent games that ask you to make important decisions before you’re equipped to understand them, I hunkered down, hit up Google, and did my homework. Because Monster Hunter’s weapons are almost all upgrades to previous weapons, it seems to be important to plan out an upgrade path early on. For example, I’ve chosen to work toward Onslaught — not the best hammer in the game, but the best hammer I like the look of. In order to craft this thing, I need to follow a very specific 9-part upgrade path — something I’d never intuitively figure out without the use of admittedly-nifty sites like Kiranico. Games don’t necessarily have to communicate every piece of information in-game, but in the case of MH3U, not having an informed plan could result in a dead-end weapon and a bunch of time and resources down the drain. As good as Kiranico is, it shouldn’t be (effectively) necessary to use a wiki to play a video game. Wiki consultation has turned me off of MMOs and more complex single-player RPGs, and as much as I’m still into MH3U, it’s not helping here either.

Monster Hunting

Homework aside, I feel like I’m starting to really get Monster Hunter. The early fights against Great Jaggi and Arzuros got me into the swing of things, but Qurupeco was the first fight that really felt like a major accomplishment. Qurupeco is this pelican/bat-looking monster with the ability to mimic the calls of other monsters to call in backup. It can bang together its wings to create fiery explosions, and fly away at will when it feels threatened. Fighting it felt like a real test of patience, endurance, judgement, and pattern recognition. There’s just so much to keep track of — keeping Qurupeco paintballed to track its location, maintaining weapon sharpness to keep attacks hitting hard, eating food to maintain stamina, drinking potions to maintain health, drinking Cool Water to prevent health drain in sandy areas, and keeping Sonic Bombs close at hand to interrupt its ally summons. Forgetting even one of these things (while also avoiding Qurupeco and friends' attacks) can be fairly devastating, and letting a bunch of them pile up can result in an dangerous backlog of tasks you don’t necessarily have enough openings to catch up. At one point, I let a Paintball wear off and allowed Qurupeco to get away and restore its health as I desperately searched the area; at another, I blindly chased Qurupeco into a new area without taking the time to sharpen my weapon and lost a huge chunk of health trying to sharpen it while getting interrupted by Jaggis and set ablaze by Qurupeco. Stunning Qurupeco with a fully-charmed hammer blast and finishing him with a golf-swing combo was satisfying in a way that brought to mind marathon JRPG bosses.

Speaking of JRPGs — and to make a likely-unprecedented comparison — MH3U’s battle pacing has somewhat reminded me of Final Fantasy XIII’s boss battles. Both have a deliberate rhythm to them, and both require the player to juggle and prioritize a series of constantly-shifting variables under duress. To some extent, that’s how a most well-designed video games work, but aspects of MH3U and FFXIII exercise the same gaming muscles in a way that really resonates with me. FFXIII had me thinking “can I get away with another couple of cycles of stagger build-up; or should I take this post-attack lull to heal, build up some stagger maintenance, or renew my buffs and debuffs?”, and I’ve found that MH3U’s combat — at least in early-game solo play — boils down to a similar-feeling mix of risk-reward trade-offs, resource management, and informed judgement calls.

Reputation

Monster Hunter: the Dark Souls of games that Japanese middle-schoolers play

In certain circles, Monster Hunter has gained a Dark Souls-esque reputation for impenetrability that I don’t think is justified. It’s more complex and less tutorialized than most modern games, but I’ve yet to hit any mechanic that required more than a quick Google search to understand.

The much-vaunted animation priority isn’t anything crazy — it’s simply a mechanical constraint serving a particular style of deliberate gameplay. The feel of the character movement and weapon swings takes some getting used to just like any well-designed, particular-feeling game takes some getting used to. Monster Hunter's animations are certainly more restrictive and punishing than most modern games, but I’m kind of baffled that this pretty basic risk-reward mechanic is treated as a huge, game-defining trait — if Monster Hunter is an “animation priority” game, is Super Mario Bros. a “momentum priority” game?

Monster Hunter has taken some getting used to, but only because I’ve never played anything quite like it and thus lacked the heuristics to immediately understand some of the more usual concepts, and because it’s taken some time for me to internalize the game’s timings and pacing. This game is widely played by children and casual gamers in Japan — it’s not some crazy thing that requires herculean open-mindedness or diligence to understand and appreciate.

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Casualties of gaming: Catherine, Etrian Odyssey IV, Mutant Blobs Attack, Muramasa Rebirth, Radiant Historia

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying some games I’ve suspected wouldn’t be up my alley, and I’ve been getting more comfortable with the idea of dropping games that aren’t grabbing me. I’ve been hesitant to write about said games and risk coming off as dismissive or overly hostile, but I’ve been wanting to get my thoughts on a few of them off my chest. Keep in mind that I didn’t hate any of these games so much as I just didn’t like them; for the most part, I understand why they're liked. I can only speak for myself, and I know better than anyone how compromised and arbitrary my opinions can be.

I gave Catherine a shot a few weeks ago, and while I really liked the setting, style, music, art direction and ambition, I just wasn’t enjoying the puzzle gameplay at all. I would have liked to have seen the game through, but I didn’t want to suffer through a bunch of unappealing gameplay to do so. I can’t deny, however, that it has one of the best title screens in gaming.

With Persona Q on the way, I decided to give Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan a shot. I spent four or five hours playing it — enough time to get a pretty good idea of what it’s all about — and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. I’m increasingly finding that I need a pretty strong narrative, cast, and game world to keep me going through a marathon JRPG, and EO IV doesn’t even attempt to offer that. To my knowledge, if I wanted to diverge from my initial party at all, I’d have to grind up a new character from scratch, or at least from some fairly rigid level baselines; the game has an autopilot mechanic that, as far as I can tell, is only there to facilitate grinding. The dungeons don’t have much personality, and there’s no narrative carrot to keep me going. I understand that the party-building and dungeon exploration are the primary appeal, and I’m glad people who are into that have a series catering to that itch, but it’s not an itch I’ve ever had. Depending on the degree to which Persona Q is an EO game (by many accounts, quite a bit), I’ll probably pass on it as well.

I played a healthy chunk of Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, but it never really clicked with me. The game felt a lot like Sound Shapes, but without the benefit of an interesting presentation hook to make up for the unsatisfying (to me) platforming. The art style and sense of humour were pretty actively unappealing — I can think of very little that makes my eyes roll as readily as pandering internet memes on billboards. I didn’t hate the game, but I also didn’t want to continue playing it.

I picked up Muramasa Rebirth on sale a while back, and finally decided to give it a shot. It looks fantastic and sounds great, but the repetitive combat and exploration wasn’t doing it for me. The combat system seemed like it could be neat, but it felt way too fast and chaotic. Any battle with more than a couple of enemies seemed to devolve into button mashing, finger crossing, and careful potion activation. The bosses were far more interesting, but also few and far between. While the background art is amazing, I found there was very little sense of place to the areas — it felt like I was warping through a bunch of copy-and-pasted backgrounds rather than exploring a tangible environment. The story seemed to have some interesting elements, but I didn’t find myself caring a whole lot about the characters. For a game with such a beautiful painterly look, it felt oddly soulless. Reading that it was a fairly long game that you essentially have to play through twice was enough to stop me in my tracks.

Speaking of games you (sort of) have to play through twice, I finally gave up on Radiant Historia after about 18 hours of increasing boredom. I really, really wanted to like Radiant Historia. It makes a great first impression with a promising battle system, political intrigue, likeable main character, solid art direction, and great Yoko Shimomura music, but it gets bogged down with tedium, filler, and by-the-books design.

I’d heard a lot of good things about the battle system — which has you pushing enemies around a grid-based field and swapping turns with allies or enemies to set up combos — but I found it slow, tedious, repetitive, and devoid of meaningful tactical decision-making. In pretty much every case, I’d start by using Stocke and Marco to put together a stack of three enemies, hit them with a spell from Raynie, then clean up accordingly on the next round. I never found any good reason to change tactics, and it didn’t help that the secondary characters — because they’re in your party less often — were consistently underleveled compared to the main team. There usually seemed to be a single clearly-optimal set of commands for a given fight, and because of this combat began to feel like glorified data entry. This might have been tolerable if said data entry was relatively quick and mindless, but even the most trivial encounters demanded quite a bit of time and attention.

The time travel mechanic and split timeline is cool in theory, but in practice seemed to be an excuse to have you run through the same bland, hard-to-navigate environments (the Sand Fortress being the most glaring example) over and over again. This game is begging for a map system, especially since the top screen is conspicuously underused outside of battle. Because of the design of the parallel timelines, I was often grossly overleveled when I was “catching up” in the other version of history. My initial enthusiasm for the great soundtrack (the Alistel theme, battle theme, and boss theme are particularly memorable) slowly faded as I realized there’s really not much to it — the same handful of tracks are run into the ground. This game’s official soundtrack contains 25 tracks, and it doesn't seem like much was left out; Xenoblade Chronicles’ contains 91. That’s obviously not an entirely fair comparison, but I think it’s telling.

Radiant Historia is an initially-endearing game with an admirable sense of ambition, but it didn’t follow through on its promise enough to keep me going. I was struggling to convince myself to keep playing well short of the halfway mark, and I figured that was a good sign the game wasn’t worth spending another 20 hours on.

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Space Channel 5: Part 2: Super successful rescue!

I’ve always been a little dubious of Sega’s Dreamcast games (and yes, I realize that's one of the worst phrases with which to begin a blog post on an enthusiast video game site). Crazy Taxi — even at the time of its fairly contemporaneous GameCube rerelease — never did much of anything for me. The Sonic Adventure games, which in fairness I only ever borrowed, always felt pretty awkward and gimmicky to me. Phantasy Star Online seemed like it was significantly buoyed by its novelty. I tried the Vita port of Jet Set Radio last year and found it frustrating and unsatisfying to play. There’s a mythos associated with that period of Sega’s history that’s never squared with my experience, and that left me naturally skeptical of games like Space Channel 5. That’s not meant as an indictment of Dreamcast-era Sega so much as an explication of where I’m personally coming from.

Given the circumstances, here’s the surprising thing: I really like Space Channel 5: Part 2. Setting aside the fact that it was simultaneously released on the PS2 and was only ever released in the west (by a third party, no less) on that platform, it’s by far my favourite Dreamcast game. I’ve never played anything quite like it; it does what it sets out to do exceptionally well, and with a great sense of style and enthusiasm.

Space Channel 5: Part 2 is a pretty simple game, and it does a really good job of easing you into the rhythm. In terms of raw gameplay, it’s essentially an elaborate and more rhythmic version version of Simon: the game demonstrates a sequence of actions to the player, and the player repeats them on the beat. These include the obvious up, down, left, and right; but also “chu” (X) and “hey” (O). During some stages, you’re hitting down on the d-pad to replicate an instrumental rhythm. Unlike Simon, however, this is much more of a rhythm game than a memory game: most of the time, the rhythms are fairly short, or come tied to obvious visual cues to jog the player’s memory. Most of the challenge comes from keeping the beat and mustering the dexterity required to replicate the faster and trickier sequences. When the game strays too far into memorization — especially in a couple of frustrating sequences in stage 4 — it suffers for it, especially since these are outliers in an otherwise-well-tuned difficulty curve. The game is maybe an hour in length, but it’s a nimble and diverse experience with a lot of replay value.

Space Channel 5: Part 2’s rhythm mechanics are sound, but its presentation is what really makes it special. While Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s United Game Artists division at Sega is famous for Rez, its first project was the original Space Channel 5, and its last was Space Channel 5: Part 2. Mizuguchi references Space Channel 5 as a product of the same “synestesia” ethos as his later work on Rez, Lumines, and Child of Eden, and it shows. The gameplay, visuals, music, and sound effects come together to form an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts. This cohesion and immersiveness is less immediately obvious in Space Channel 5 since it’s a much less self-serious and artsy-seeming experience than Mizuguchi’s other work — it’s harder to imagine him referencing the game in his work at the Keio University School of Media Design — but it’s absolutely there.

There’s no getting around it: Space Channel 5: Part 2 is a ridiculous game. Purge, an 18-year-old sociopath, kidnaps Space President Peace and demands a 6.6 trillion space dollar random. It turns out this is an elaborate distraction — his actual plan to take control of the media’s broadcasting satellites and forge them into a “Ballistic Groove Gun” he’ll use to force the entire world to dance against its will. In order to prevent this, Ulala and friends save dancing citizens (and sometimes animals) to form dance posses they lead into climactic dance battles.

This weirdness feels completely genuine, and nothing like the pandering, self-aware, “I bet this will go viral” affectedness that characterizes so much of modern video game humour. Ulala takes everything in enthusiastic stride, and the game never pauses to say “hey, look how dumb this is.” Whether you’re having a guitar duel with your Channel 42 rival in front of synchronized swimmers, getting dropped into an out-of-nowhere waltz battle with a robot pooped out of a giant tentacle monster, or leading a posse of tripping-out cheerleaders to rescue Space Michael Jackson, everything feels oddly appropriate in context.

Everything comes together into a chorus climax that must seem ridiculous out-of-context, but genuinely felt like a natural and fitting conclusion to the game’s musical-like narrative arc:

One last thing: the localization is surprisingly good. Don’t get me wrong, there’s rough edges in here: it’s clear that the the actors weren’t always aware of the context in which their lines were being uttered, and it leads to some awkward scenes. Lines like “it’s robots!” and Michael Jackson’s phoned-in deliveries are questionable or great depending on where you’re coming from. There are a couple of sequences in which “left” and “right” sound nearly or literally identical, which for all I know could be a bug in the PS3 remaster. There are also some occasional awkward pauses or overlaps where the English lines are a bit out of sync with the choreography.

Gripes aside, Space Channel 5: Part 2’s localization was pulled off pretty well by the standards of the time. The English acting is largely pretty good, and the rewritten songs are great considering the challenge of retaining the rhythm and timing of a very different language. I played a few stages in Japanese, and while the original is predictably a lot more polished and cohesive, I think the English performances for Ulala and Fuse (the faceless Space Channel 5 director) in particular have a lot more character to my English-speaking ears. Based on a quick scan of the credits, it’s not clear to me who was responsible for the translation and recording — Space Channel 5 Special Edition was published by Agetec, but given the timing and presence of English-speakers in UGA, I have to wonder if Sega localized the game but changed their minds and farmed out the publishing risk.

P.S. Speaking of credits, Space Channel 5: Part 2’s credits theme is super charming:

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Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence: Frustrating fun

I played Metal Gear Solid 2 last year, and my feelings on Metal Gear Solid 3 are pretty similar, for better and for worse. I think it’s a superior — or at least more endearing — game in a lot of ways, but it’s also pretty rough from a gameplay perspective. I wouldn’t have enjoyed this game without the Hideo Kojima factor, but man do I really love the Hideo Kojima factor.

I played the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (PS3) edition of the game, which is based on the Subsistence update. I’m not very clear on what this version changed, but I do know it added a proper third-person camera, and I can’t imagine playing the game without it. It’s dramatically more playable (and perhaps too easy as a result) when you can actually see what’s ahead of you without constantly swapping into first-person mode. I didn’t have a huge problem with the overhead camera in the first two Metal Gear Solid games because the Soliton Radar offered you a large degree of situational awareness. Spending half of your time in a game staring at a minimap was its own kind of problem, but it did at least feel fair. Removing the radar while retaining a camera angle that restricts your forward visibility to a few metres just doesn’t make sense.

That’s not to say the camera is perfect. Because of its fixed-camera-angle roots, Subsistence still isn’t a proper third-person shooter in the contemporary sense. Regardless of the camera’s direction, first-person mode still points the camera where Snake is looking. This mismatch between how the game works and how I expect a third-person game to work led to a lot of really awkward situations in which I would attempt to shoot an enemy I was looking directly at only to end up aiming 90 degrees away. While either stick can be used for first-person aiming, the SSA revolver (which at one point is your only weapon) performs a superfluous spinning animation when you move the right stick, which ruined an otherwise-dramatic sequence for me. When you’re crawling through grass, the camera insists on going into first-person mode, and while I get why that’s the case, it was never what I wanted.

The camera compounds some already-awkward combat mechanics to make any moderately demanding sequence way more frustrating than it needs to be. The controls feel overloaded — buttons are mapped to too many actions, and some of the maneuvers (like sidling and leaning) are super awkward and unintuitive to pull off under duress. I largely enjoyed sneaking around and taking out guards on my terms, but any sequence in which I was forced to fight enemies in direct combat would inevitably devolve into a fumbling, frustrating clusterfuck. I’d be trying to maneuver the ponderous first-person camera toward enemies I had been looking directly at, holding down the shoot button while trying to get Snake pointed at enemies, accidentally entering crawl mode, and generally not having a whole lot of fun. The boss battles (particularly the Boss battle) are more ambitious than they were fun. The camouflage, food, and medicine mechanics are tedious distractions. I like to think that I’m pretty good at calibrating my expectations for older games, but in the case of Metal Gear Solid 3, I’m not convinced the mechanics were substantially more acceptable in 2004. This game is a contemporary of Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War — there’s no excuse for how lame the action sequences are. I didn’t hate playing Metal Gear Solid 3, but I certainly didn’t enjoy the gameplay in and of itself.

Gameplay complaints aside, I think Metal Gear Solid 3 has a lot going for it. The production values are superb, and assuming the HD remake didn’t fundamentally overhaul very much, it holds up remarkably well today. The art direction, and even the technical implementation, can more-or-less stand up to games released a decade later, and in a lot of ways still exceeds them. The smooth framerate, which as I understand it is a massive step up from the often-chuggy PS2 original, helps a lot in that respect. As with the previous games, the sound design is amazing — this series has some of the best noises in the game, and the mix comes together in a really cohesive way. The score is great and appropriately evocative of the setting, though in a more cinematic way that doesn’t hold up as much for independent listening. There’s some great adaptive sneaking music, which sort of comes across here but isn’t very well-represented in the official soundtrack. There’s also some memorable boss themes (The Fury, Volgin, Shagohod), and, of course, the Snake Eater theme, which is in varying forms used to great effect at several points in the game:

In general, I think Snake Eater has a certain artistic flair to it that was lacking in Sons of Liberty, and its (relative) grounding in geography and history makes it a lot more memorable.

I was trying to explain to someone why I enjoy the narrative so much, and I realized it’s hard to justify in words. The story is kind of a mess, and only really makes sense if you suspend all disbelief and just let it wash over you on its own terms. If you want Metal Gear Solid to be serious, logical, or even reasonably coherent, you’re going to be disappointed, because that’s not what it is (nor, speaking as someone who played the original Metal Gear Solid pretty recently, has it ever been). If you go in expecting it to be ridiculous, cheeky, self-referential, and utterly uninhibited, you’ll find one of the most downright fun video game stories out there.

Why is everything Ocelot does (and every gesture he makes) utterly baffling until the revelation that he was secretly triple-crossing everyone on behalf of the CIA? Metal Gear! Why is building a giant walking tank in 1964 the only way to get an ICBM from Russia to the United States? Metal Gear! Why does Eva leave her jumpsuit unzipped to her pelvis at all times? Metal Gear! Who the hell are the Cobras, why do they have supernatural powers, and why does nobody seem to acknowledge this? Metal Gear! Why is the entire final sequence predicated on the idea that the idea that Ocelot’s added weight is enough to prevent a ground effect vehicle from flying? Metal Gear!

I don’t mean any of this in a condescending or ironic “it’s so bad it’s good!” way. I was on board with every ridiculous action scene, every overwritten line, every obvious pop culture reference, every ogling camera angle, every melodramatic monologue, every “what the fuck?” moment, and every Hideo Kojima indulgence. There’s an earnestness to practically every aspect of the Metal Gear Solid games that I find uniquely endearing.

Despite all of my problems with Metal Gear Solid 3, I gladly blew through it over the course of a few days in a very uncharacteristic way, and can’t wait to dive into Metal Gear Solid 4.

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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: Idiosyncratic, flawed, yet endearing

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one of those games that seems to succeed despite itself. The game has pretty glaring camera and technical issues; and there’s not a whole lot to the gameplay. Despite its issues, I enjoyed it a fair bit.

Enslaved, gameplay-wise, is pretty standard melee-based action-adventure fare. The combat system is fairly lightweight, but in a way I appreciated because it rewarded situational awareness over reflexes and combo memorization. When it’s working (and I’ll return to that disclaimer soon), it’s all about managing and reacting to enemy positions and states. You’ve got a weak fast attack, a powerful slow attack, a sweep that spreads and momentarily stuns enemies, and a vital shield-breaking attack that you’re often trying to get yourself into a position to use without being interrupted. You’ve also got shield-breaking and damage-dealing ranged attacks, though I never got the hang of reliably lining up shots in the heat of battle and ended up only shooting ranged enemies. You’ve also got an evade roll and a counter attack, both of which are pretty much optional and serve as personal style choices more than anything.

It’s not a deep system, but it’s one that I ended up appreciating far more than I expected to. There’s a deliberate-feeling economy to Enslaved’s mechanics: each of the moves has a very clear purpose, and each of the half-dozen or so enemy types is immediately recognizable. Enemies telegraph their attacks, and they move slow enough that positioning actually feels important. It’s not a demanding game in any sense, but I found it quite satisfying.

Now for the disclaimer: the camera is a mess. All of the nice stuff I wrote only applies when you know what the hell is going on around you, and that’s far too often not the case. Even at the best of times, the camera is far too close, and as a result you often don't know what's happening behind you. When the game decides to mess with the camera for visual effect, it has an annoying tendency to end up pointing in a comically useless direction, and fighting it only seems to make it worse. The all-important shield-breaking attack pulls the camera in even further, making it even more difficult to know what’s coming as you’re stuck in a vulnerable charging animation. A lot of the combat revolves around getting enemies separated and taking them out before the pack catches up to you, but this usually leaves you with the rest of the pack behind the camera, and often midway through an attack animation. I ended up spending a lot of time blocking against enemies that were completely out of view while I waited for the camera to pan around. This isn’t a small issue — if it wasn’t for the game’s pretty forgiving difficulty level, the camera might have been a deal-breaker for me.

Not pictured are the two enemies lining up their attacks under the cover of a camera flourish.

Enslaved is also pretty weak from a technical standpoint, at least on the PS3. It’s got some pretty wild Unreal Engine texture-pop in, and although I understand where it comes from, I can’t help but wonder why Unreal games don’t just take an extra second to load instead of making you watch the sausage get made. The framerate can be horrendous at times — including some pretty demanding combat and action sequences — and its instability inevitably leads to noticeable screen tearing. On a couple of occasions, I had to reset the game because a bunch of sound effects weren’t playing. There’s an already-lame sequence in which you’re shooting a turret on the back of a moving vehicle and the camera is vibrating as if it’s being dragged behind the action on a dirt road. The pre-rendered cutscenes (which use the same assets) end up being pretty jarring because they actually run smoothly. I think I tend to be pretty tolerant of technical problems in games, but in this case I felt the need to mention them because they so substantially impact the quality of the experience.

Given how much is wrong with Enslaved, the fact that I still enjoyed it should speak volumes about how much I enjoyed its narrative and presentation. In a lot of ways, Enslaved reminded me of Beyond Good & Evil — both are idiosyncratic in ways that resist comparison, and both build endearing characters that succeed despite some questionable narrative context. (Also, I’d be remiss not to mention Pey’j and Pigsy in the same sentence.) Lindsey Shaw and in particular Andy Serkis put in great performances, and they’re rendered to great effect in-game. The facial animation tech is more than eye candy — it gives the performances a naturalness and subtlety voice acting alone wouldn’t achieve. The titular enslavement — which has player character Monkey in a death pact with co-star Trip — is an interesting concept, and it’s explored fairly well by video game standards. Both characters’ backstories and motivations are left fairly vague, and while the trajectory of their relationship is fairly predictable, it’s portrayed pretty effectively and believably. There’s a point in the story at which a character seems to bounce back from a fairly horrible trauma too quickly, but that’s a tough thing to handle well in the context of a short action game. Like The Last of Us, this isn’t a story about a journey — it’s a story about what a journey reveals about two characters. In this sense, the third character Pigsy feels extraneous — he grew on me, but he’s not the subject of the story and didn’t add much to it.

While I would have preferred it look a bit worse and run better, Enslaved is at least a very pretty game. There are some really great-looking and expansive environments, and Ninja Theory’s post-apocalypse is much more colourful, inventive, and varied than I expected it to be. The initial trip through New York, the mountain village, and the final set piece particularly stand out. While the environments don’t look as good as something like Uncharted 2 from a technical perspective, I think the overall effect is a lot more interesting aesthetically. Unfortunately, while Monkey’s animations look great, Trip and Pigsy can move in some disappointingly video gamey ways outside of the motion-captured cutscenes.

Enslaved — despite its aforementioned issues, as well as a twist ending that has little relation to the the rest of the game’s events — was an enjoyable experience. It’s a well-written, well-acted, and well-presented story, and the gameplay that ties it together is enjoyable and well-paced enough to justify itself. I’ve been bouncing through a series of video game disappointments as of late, and Enslaved was a breath of fresh air.

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The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is exasperatingly unfun

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is an exasperatingly unfun game. When I don’t like a game, I can usually figure out why other people did. In the case of Spirit Tracks, I genuinely can’t. The controls are crippled, the world and narrative are rote, and the severe resemblance to Phantom Hourglass is suspect. It was a chore to play and I was relieved when it finally came to an end.

I’ll start with the good: the soundtrack — notwithstanding the unfortunate number of recycled Phantom Hourglass arrangements — is dramatically better. The Chancellor Cole theme is a great villain theme, and is clearly meant to evoke Majora’s Mask’s discordant tone. The boss themes are as good as some of the series' best. The dungeon themes are repeated, but they’re also pretty good. The Tower of Spirits staircase theme, which gradually builds as you climb, was always a pleasure. The field theme has a great adventurous feel to it. The main theme (which references Link’s Awakening’s Tal Tal Heights theme) is among my favourites in the series, and it’s arranged to great effect for the final boss fight. Music, to me, is one of the more important aspects of the Zelda series. Phantom Hourglass was a disappointment in that regard, and Spirit Tracks is for the most part a return to form.

Spirit Tracks, for a DS game, also looks pretty good. Yes, it’s easy to look at various aspects of it — like the super-low-resolution textures and papercraft-looking faces — and poke holes, but the overall look is a fairly effective recreation of The Wind Waker on a significantly less powerful system. Relative to what I remember of Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks improves the production values of cutscenes with some nice animation and camera work. Spirit Zelda is super likeable and probably my favourite companion in the series save Midna. That said, the swimmy PS1-style rendering can cause visibility problems (especially when you need to discern the height of parallel ledges), and the game’s tendency to slow down when a bunch of enemies are on-screen can rankle.

The thing about Spirit Tracks that ultimately caused me to go sour on it — and it’s a pretty major thing — is that almost none of the gameplay is satisfying or enjoyable. I'm not saying this because I don’t like the Zelda formula, because for the most part I do. I’ve very recently replayed Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, and got around to playing Skyward Sword late last year. I’ve got my issues with all three of those games, but I did generally enjoy them.

Many of my problems are directly or indirectly related to the controls. The stylus-only controls are impressive in the sense that they work way better than one would expect, but they’re far too often a source of frustration. Spirit Tracks is not a difficult game, but it’s often a frustrating game in ways you feel powerless to manage. I came close to dying on the first boss fight because the camera framing prevented me from putting enough distance between the stylus and Link to convince him to run. I’d fumble around, take really stupid hits, and jump into pits because the controls were too overloaded, slow, and generally inadequate to handle what the game was throwing at me. Half of the dungeons have you drawing lines to indirectly control a ponderous and brain-dead co-op character, often in time-sensitive and demanding scenarios.

Spirit Tracks doubles down on Phantom Hourglass’ ridiculous use of the DS microphone. Blowing into the DS microphone was always stupid, and it causes parts of the game to be borderline unplayable on even the quietest of public transportation. I had to stop playing the game on the train on multiple occasions: first because the wind-blowing item was constantly registering microphone blowing; and second because I couldn’t progress unless I dictated my gender, eye colour, and astrological sign into the microphone while sitting in a quiet car. The novelty of the DS microphone wore off pretty much immediately after the DS launched; it’s inexcusable for a game released in 2009 to use it for anything except voice communication.

Speaking of unfun novelties, drawing on the map wasn’t a good idea in Phantom Hourglass, and it’s even worse here. To me, Zelda dungeons are at their best when the puzzles have you thinking and moving through the environment in an intuitive and relatively contextually-appropriate way. Spirit Tracks has its moments, but it far too often comes back to the same tedious and gimicky gameplay wells. There’s nothing clever or fun about forcing the players to draw lines on their map to figure out where statues are facing, copy down riddles so they can hit switches in the correct order, or manually draw a map of a pitch-black room. There’s few “oh, I get it” moments, and a lot of “come on, they want me to do that again” moments. I found myself getting aimlessly stuck here more often than any post-NES Zelda game. I usually try to avoid using walkthroughs, but I found myself turning to them very quickly because I almost never found satisfaction in figuring stuff out on my own.

Spirit Tracks, at least in my experience, isn’t a good game, and the only reason I stuck with it was because of a sense of Zelda fan obligation. I felt the same way about Phantom Hourglass for the most part, but I had held out hope that Spirit Tracks would address my gripes. Spirit Tracks does sand off the roughest edge of Phantom Hourglass (the forced dungeon repetition), but the flaws that it carries forward — as well as the new ones it inexplicably introduces — are a lot harder to accept the second time around. I’m undeniably biased in favour of the Zelda series, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with a strong argument in favour of Phantom Hourglass or Spirit Tracks.

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Mario & Luigi: Dream Team snatches mediocrity from the jaws of greatness

[I'd attach this blog to the game's forum, but the search box for doing so is broken.]

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is an exasperating game. It’s a great-looking, great-sounding, and sharply-written game. It’s also mechanically solid and well paced… until it’s not. The final third of the game is a mess of stereotypical fetch quests, padded-out dungeons, awful boss fights, and tedious enemy attack patterns. It could have been a breezy 30 hour game that knows its limits, but goes out of its way to overstay its welcome.

While I was never particularly in love with Dream Team, throughout most of the game I was having a thoroughly pleasant time. It’s narratively and mechanically undemanding, but in a way that has a time and place. The Mario action-RPG combat system, when executed on properly, is brisk and satisfying. Dream Team has the sharp Treehouse Mario RPG localization you’ve come to expect: memorable characters, cheeky self-awareness, and genuinely funny moments. The writing is backed up by some great choreography and character animations that give the dialogue a bunch of personality. AlphaDream mix things up by having you traverse Luigi’s dreams, which take place on a two-dimensional plane and have you working with an ever-growing set of amusing “Luiginary” abilities.

The battle system — as fans of the series should expect — is turn-based, and has you executing simple timing manoeuvres to increase your attack damage and avoid enemy attacks. It’s generally fun, although the difficulty can be inconsistent — within a single area, some enemies will be trivial to avoid, while others will require you to stay on your toes and respond quickly to subtle tells. In some cases, you’re able to take advantage of the ways enemies interact with each other to your strategic advantage. The dream sequences have you battling a dozen or more enemies, but give Luigi the power to follow up on your attacks to hit the majority of the enemies at once. You gradually unlock special attacks, many of which require very specific button presses or ill-considered motion gestures to execute. It strikes me as ridiculous to expect the player to remember how to execute some of the more demanding attacks when they may not have have done so for days. I ended up mastering a handful and ignoring the rest.

Dream Team looks great, and as with many 3DS games, it’s in a way that doesn’t come across very well in screenshots. The decision to use sprites for all of the characters seems odd on paper, but it looks great on-screen. As they explain it, they “worked out special ways of drawing and using color to make them look three-dimensional.” Whatever they did, it worked, as the sprites do truly look like they’re part of the scene rather than paper cut-outs. The environments — in both the three-dimensional real-world segments and the two-dimensional dream sequences — look fantastic as well. There’s some really inventive art design, and some pretty impressive vistas. The game runs buttery smooth except for a handful of unfortunate spots in which too many effects are on-screen at once during dream sequences.

Dream Team’s soundtrack was composed by Yoko Shimomura, and it’s predictably excellent. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and I don’t expect it to stick with me, but it effectively complements the game’s storybook atmosphere and has has more than its fair share of catchy melodies. It’s got boppy outdoorsy tunes, regal fanfares, synthy remixes of regal fanfares, catchy battle themes, vacationy resort music, mystical exploration tracks, and weighty boss themes. As with its writing, Dream Team’s music goes a long way in establishing Dream Team’s character — the game would be a markedly worse game without it.

If you’d asked me at the 25 hour mark, I’d have complemented the game’s pacing and variety. For the first two thirds of the game, AlphaDream do an admirable job of keeping you moving through new environments, working with unique gameplay mechanics, meeting new characters, and acquiring new abilities. The frequent visits to the two-dimensional dreamscapes — with unique enemy types, abilities, battle mechanics, art, and music — add an extra level of variety. But beginning — as is often the case — with a superfluous fetch quest, things start coming off the rails.

The fetch quest itself is not especially egregious, but it’s the point at which the game seems to run out of new ideas. You’re collecting pieces of a thing, collecting pieces of another thing, and hitting buttons to open a door to another area in which you hit buttons to open a door to another area. You’re also fighting enemies and bosses with increasingly tedious — and often cheap-feeling — attack patterns. At this point, Mario and Luigi are so overpowered that the added challenge doesn’t represent a threat so much as it represents a source of tedium and frustration. I ended up getting hit by almost every attack the final boss threw at me and still besting it — a pretty unsatisfying final note.

The low point of the game is, without a doubt, the five giant Luigi boss battles. These stylus-driven, portrait-orientated battle sequences were outsourced to Good-Feel, and with all due respect to the studio, it shows. At first blush, these battles seemed like they’d be a fun diversion, but that pretty quickly fell apart when I realized they were played exclusively with vague stylus gestures. You’re mashing taps, swipes, and circles; and trying to figure out through trial and error what you’re supposed to do to counter boss attacks. In stark contrast to the core battle system, you're spending most of your time watching rather than playing. Some sequences have you tilting the 3DS while the motion on-screen follows a good quarter-second behind and the 3DS accelerometer gradually loses track its centre. I saw two game-over screens in my entire playthrough, and both were over ten minutes into a tedious giant boss fight in which I simply couldn’t figure out how to counter an extremely potent attack. These sequences are a complete and utter mess — some of the worst gameplay I can remember suffering through in ages.

As I said at the beginning, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team could have been a great 30 hour game. Instead, it’s an exasperatingly mediocre 45 hour game. As fun as the combat system can be, it’s not deep enough to remain fun throughout, especially when the rest of the game’s charm starts falling away. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a predictable, paper-thin plot and one-note characters, snappy writing and effective choreography isn’t quite enough to make up for it in a game of this length. The bafflingly awful outsourced boss battles are the icing on the cake — emblematic of the way Dream Team goes out of its way to sabotage itself for no good reason.

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Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f (PS Vita): Eclectic, rewarding, and unabashedly fun

The strawman

When Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F was released on the PS3 last fall, it caught my attention for both good and bad reasons. I read a few accounts of it — including Pete Davison’s on USgamer and Hailinel’s on Giant Bomb — that made it sound like a great modern take on the quirky, pre-plastic-instrument style of rhythm gaming that I completely missed out on. On the other hand, Project Diva F was the subject of a disconcerting amount of hand-wringing and outright hostility from the western gaming media. A godawful USgamer review described the fan base as shameless creeps and degenerates, and Giant Bomb spent the better part of an hour going out of their way to make innocuous aspects of the game seem as perverted as possible — the description read “the shame Jeff will feel after playing this game is all too real.”

I resent even having to address Project Diva F’s alleged “creepiness,” but the extent to which it’s been stigmatized essentially requires me to acknowledge it. I’m sure that some portion of this game’s audience is into the characters in a way that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but the actual content of the game is shockingly innocent by pretty much any standard — and certainly by the standard of modern western music videos. Project Diva F is only lewd if you make it lewd.

There’s a lot going on in Project Diva f (the lower case f signifies the Vita release). There’s an absurdly deep track editor, a “Diva Room” mode in which you interact with characters to build up affinity (for reasons I’m not clear on), a shop full of items for the Diva rooms, and an AR feature that I assume (I don’t have the required AR cards) allows you to watch virtual concerts. The thing about all of this stuff is that it’s wholly ancillary to the core rhythm game experience. I’ve spent 21 hours playing the game, and while I could count the number of times I’ve left the Rhythm Game menu on a single hand, I’ve absolutely gotten my money’s worth.

The game

Project Diva f is a great rhythm game. The music is charming and varied, the rhythm tracks are well-composed, the difficulty curve is rewarding, and the production values are great. My lack of experience with the genre means I can’t say much about how the game compares to others in the genre, though I can say that I’ve had more fun with Project Diva f than I remember having with Guitar Hero 2.

I started out playing on normal, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t until I graduated to the hard mode that Project Diva f really clicked with me. One of the core skills required for higher-level play is the ability to alternate between the d-pad and face buttons, which are completely interchangeable. For example, if you have a quick string of [X, X, X, O, O, O] coming at you, what you really want to do is hit [X, ▼, X, ▶, O, ▶]. Early on in hard mode, I made a conscious decision to start alternating, and banged my head against Weekender Girl for a while until I picked it up — the only real difficulty spike I experienced. Mastering the mechanics of Project Diva f was otherwise a very satisfying and natural-feeling experience. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I went from muddling my way through normal mode to clearing songs on extreme mode on my first try. In this era of mechanics often taking a backseat to narrative and presentation, it was refreshing to play a game that so rewards mechanical proficiency.

That’s not to say Project Diva f is lacking in presentation. Each of the 38 tracks has a heavily-choreographed video featuring unique assets. The song list is absurdly eclectic, which as I understand it is a result of the way almost all of the game’s music is sourced from amateur Vocaloid musicians with followings on Niconico and YouTube. Remember those Google Chrome ads featuring the internet communities around Lady Gaga and (pre-shitshow) Justin Bieber? In Japan, the ads featured Hatsune Miku. While I don’t see myself listening to Vocaloid music outside of Project Diva games, I’ve developed a genuine and unexpected respect for the grassroots Vocaloid community. It’s great that this technology has allowed amateur artists to get huge online followings and starring roles in blockbuster games, and I’ve enjoyed this guided introduction to the scene. I tend to dislike the use of “Japanese” as an adjective, but this game’s unabashed Japaneseness works entirely in its favour.

The music

I’ve picked out five songs that I particularly enjoyed playing. One of the most notable things about this game is how consistently good (and well-suited to rhythm gameplay) the music is — making a list of five wasn’t easy:

Tell Your World

This is a more traditional techno-pop song, and one you’ll recognize from the Google Chrome commercial. It’s fairly catchy, and its adherence to a tight beat and long stretches of notes makes it really fun to play.

Senbonzakura

Here’s something completely different — a folk-sounding song with an elaborate and stylish video. It’s also really enjoyable to play, and strikes a nice balance between demanding and intuitive.

Summer Idol

Another really fun, unique, and catchy song. One of my ongoing Project Diva aspirations is to clear this song on Expert. (It’s worth noting that the video uploader deliberately dressed the characters in swimsuits. That’s not the default.)

Negaposi*Continues

A retro-inspired track with a demanding, rewarding rhythm track and intricate video. I really struggled to clear this track on hard mode the first time, and it felt great when I finally squeaked through. A week later, I got an excellent rating (one step down from perfect).

Dream-Eating Monochrome Baku

The lapsed ska fan and Japan Europe aficionado in me approves. This is a really great example of the extent to which Vocaloid creators go all-in on their goofy ideas and produce something with a ton of charm as a result.

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Closing the book on Persona 3

Warning: Spoilers ahead! I'd regularly post this to the Persona 3 FES forum, but tagging blog posts to game pages seems to be broken right now.

First, a confession: I didn't finish Persona 3. I got to January 1 (right after the big Ryoji decision), saw the half-assed New Year's event, contemplated the continued Tartarus grinding and frustrating final boss fight I'd have to put up with, and decided to watch the finale on YouTube. I put 70+ hours into the game, completed most of the social links I was interested in, and grew completely sick of the dungeon crawling. I just didn't have it in me to play any more.

Don't read that as a complete dismissal of Persona 3. There's a lot about Persona 3 I really like, but my six-month-long, on-again-off-again crawl through the game says volumes about my relationship with it.

I didn't love the combat in Persona 4, but I also didn't particularly dislike it. The changes in setting kept things fresh, and the narrative stakes of each stage made the fighting feel important. The bosses were often challenging and rewarding, and rarely feel cheap. In Persona 3, the only real challenge is in the floor bosses, and the balancing is all over the place. I'd tear through some, and get utterly wrecked by others until I spent a night grinding through the same repetitive corridors. AI partners would make exasperatingly idiotic decisions at the worst possible times, making me yearn for the direct party control of Persona 4. Winning was more of a relief than genuinely satisfying. The SEES operation bosses, because of the way the game uses floor bosses to ensure that you're levelled appropriately, were a cakewalk in a way that felt at odds with the narrative.

I don't expect a JRPG to keep me constantly on my toes, but Persona 3's grinding felt tedious and disrespectful of my time. I liked parts of Persona 3 despite the 30+ hours I must have spent grinding in Tartarus while listening to podcasts, and that doesn't appear to be an uncommon opinion. I suspect part of my problem with the Persona games is my lack of interest in the fusion system -- I know some people love fusing uber-powerful persona and poking at the underlying gameplay systems, but that's never been my jam.

Even the real-world parts of the game often felt half-baked. Months went by with almost no original content, and events like the Kyoto trip and New Year's felt half-assed. I was able to max out my character stats weirdly early and finished the evening social links midway through the game, meaning I was stuck making the same run to Game Panic every night to buy persona stat upgrades. There were no social links with the main male characters, and the forced dating of female characters meant I had to walk a scheduling tightrope to avoid letting their social links reverse. Many of the ancillary social links felt trite and forgettable. For an 80+ hour game, there's puzzlingly little attempt made to keep things fresh.

I needed to get off that off my chest, but let's be clear, I also liked a lot of stuff about Persona 3. Like Persona 4, Persona 3 concludes in a really satisfying way. I think there's a good case to be made that the length and relatively slow pace of these games makes them well-suited to appeal to emotion -- particularly in their conclusions -- without feeling corny or unearned. I think Persona 4 did a lot more to get the player invested in the characters, but even so, I was pretty touched by Persona 3's conclusion.

The concept of friendship and love being this supernatural force able to overcome all is odds with my trained disposition against earnestness and platitude, but as pieces of fiction, Persona 3 and 4 resonated with me, and were refreshing in this media atmosphere of cynicism and irony.

Persona 3 has style, both artistically and technically. While I was a big fan of Persona 4 (a game with a larger scope, to be fair) I think I might like Persona 3 more as a complete artistic package. The Dark Hour feels menacing and almost macabre without feeling cartoonish or otherwise over-the-top, and it's accented perfectly by the slowly-layered-upon piano hooks. The use of green -- not only on the moon and sky, but also in the oppressive smoggy tint -- gives the Dark Hour an appropriately toxic and menacing character. It plays off the presence of blood at the lower levels, which gradually (and also appropriately) gives way to a more seraphic and otherworldly look near the top.

Iwatodai is tonally ambiguous. It's equally appropriate as a setting for dark and light moments. The school -- particularly the roof -- feels safe, youthful, and bright -- a disposition cemented by the energetic pop music. Even as the Apathy Syndrome reaches its peak, the school remains an oasis. The stations are rough around the edges, and their level of upkeep reflects the mental health of the population. The dormitory feels like a much more adult place than the school, as reflected in its music. The members of SEES -- both in terms of their personal histories and the task they've been given -- are not innocent children. The dorm music shares its musical influences with the Tartarus battle theme and SEES operations -- the dungeon theme even follows Ryoji into the dorm.

The character portraits and modelling are great -- succinctly conveying aspects of the characters personalities and dispositions. Mitsuru's moneyed upbringing, internalized expectations, and cultivated distance come across not only in her script, wardrobe, and voice, but also in subtle aspects of her portrait and animations. Likewise, a lot of Junpei's insecurity and projection of carelessness comes across in his character art, idle animations, and posture.

Persona 3 is obviously a PS2 game, but it doesn't suffer much because of it. For all of the contemporary focus on specifications and how many gigabytes of memory the PS4 and XB1 allow games to use, Persona 3 gets an astounding amount of mileage out of the PS2's 36 MB of RAM and 300 MHz processor. A lot of modern games -- in an era of orders of magnitude higher memory and CPU budgets -- struggle to make their characters feel like real people as effectively as the Persona games. Textures very rarely stick out as being low-resolution, and the low polygon counts are very rarely noticeable.

Shōji Meguro's soundtrack is all over the place in a way I really appreciated. How many video game composers could pack this video gamey ditty, this this mournful orchestral piece, this reserved atmospheric piece, and this straight-up J-pop ending theme into one soundtrack without the aggregate product feeling like an aimless mess? While I have no idea what Meguro's mindset is, I get the sense that he possesses a potent combination of eclectic influences and non-self-seriousness that's allowed him to stake out a pretty unique and endearing style.

I'm not an art book person, but I went out of my way to grab the Persona 3 Design Works. Likewise, I tracked down the soundtracks for Persona 3, Persona 3 FES, and Persona 3 Portable, as well as the "Reincarnation" remix album. When I look forward to playing Catherine, Persona 4 Arena, and the slate of Persona games announced for 2015, the work of Shigenori Soejima and Shōji Meguro are a big part of the draw. Soejima's art is good enough to speak to me despite a lack of manga or anime background, and Meguro's music nails a melodic pop sensibility that I'm not typically drawn to.

Persona 3 is one of those games that I really wish I liked more. Aspects of it are masterful, and aspects of it are downright exasperating. It feels special to me in a lot of the same ways that Persona 4 Golden did -- and it's arguably not all that different of a game -- but Persona 4 Golden was tightened up and fleshed out to an extent that kept me largely hooked from beginning to end, and Persona 3 was constantly losing me in the drudgery of actually playing it.

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