Persona 3 Super Valentine's Day S.Link Level 10 Fan Art FEStival!

Welcome, unattached gamers and MegaTen addicts alike, to a pre-Valentine's Day celebration of Persona 3 fan art, a "Persona 3: FEStival", if you will! Set your sights upon some amazingly amazing pictures from the amazing-est Persona fan artist around! Gaze upon these illustrations, and imagine that you too can get a Social Link to level 10!



Your Fate is in the Cards: The Fool's Journey in Persona 3

Note: A post of mine got promoted on Dtoid, Internet-Famous FTW.
Hit the full post on my C-Blog. Apologies for making a post that links to an external blog, but this is the most efficient way to do it.

Good fantasy stories can get you involved within their world. Great fantasy stories get you involved in your own. Persona 3 does exactly that, and in a most novel way to boot*.

If there's anything positive about my being unable to play Persona 4 just yet, it's that it has gotten Persona 3 on my mind. In my mind was a question, "What was that whole thing with 'The Journey' and 'The Answer'"? Even having devoted ninety-odd hours of my life to the game, I hadn't quite bothered to learn why, too busy following a guide to maxing out my social links**.

Indulging my curiosity, I realized just how expertly Persona 3 handles its mythical grab-bag. In fact the personae themselves are the most shallow examples of the game's use of references***.

As pretty much everyone knows, each social link in the game is associated with a major arcana, the "trumps" found in a typical tarot card deck. The real kicker, though, is that the arcana, placed in a certain order, make up "The Fool's Journey", a tarot-based metaphor for life and the search for identity. Even the boss encounters and various plot details, ordered along different phases of The Fool's Journey, each of which (you guessed it) is associated with a given card.

It'd take me a few thousand more words to describe every social link and its various interpretations, so I'll just be addressing the arcana mentioned by the final boss, and the lines he spouts as he shifts between them during the battle. C-Blog

Valkyria Chronicles:Impressions Are Correct, It's Art Attack Time

It came out yesterday, and what I said in the initial demo impressions holds true. It's a great-looking and well-polished tactical game, but it still comes with some niggling flaws that keep the experience from flowing as well as it could.

I'm of the opinion that the game doesn't quite merit the glowing reviews it's been getting, perhaps due to its novelty for gamers not well-versed in Japanese sRPGs (even then it's quite innovative), but mind you it's still a must-have for anyone interested in sRPGs, interesting visuals, anime, or worthwhile PS3 exclusives. The demo is available on PSN, and is thankfully no longer linked to an episode of Qore (small mercies), I suggest you hit it up. Those looking for a more comprehensive appraisal can refer to my own (glowing) review.

My ulterior motive for including yet another post about VC is that I've found out who the lead artist is: Raita Honjou. Also known as Zettai Shoujo, Raita has produced many good doujinshi of the safe and unsafe variety, and his signature style carries over into the game, perfectly suited to the visual effects. And now I will post (safe) images from my Raita collection. I have yet to find some of his more professional work, but if I ever do get my hands on them...

And now, some Raita:

Kill Bill by Raita
Raita's Militaria
Raita's Gizmo II

The Problem With Achievements Part 1: Lose the Unlocks

It's an interesting feeling when you have an epihany about something. It might come as a consideration of dynamic difficulty and its ramifications on open-world gameplay, the experience of playing "non-game" games like Linger in Shadows, or even the wonders of the Half-Tucked Shirt. These sorts of things can fundamentally change the way you see a game, feature, or what-have-you.

In this case, I came to an interesting realization regarding achievements. Let's get definitions out of the way first. Achievements are artificial point values (or trophy grades, or titles) awarded to commemorate passing various milestones over the course of gameplay. These values are then tracked online so they can be seen, marveled at, or ridiculed.

Achievements are now standard in nearly every Xbox 360 game (where they became popularized), most newer PlayStation 3 games (as trophies), and making inroads into various PC titles. Most view them as an easy and largely painless way for developers to extend the value propositions of their games beyond simply finishing them. Obtaining achievements and the perceived value associated with them appeals to that primal hoarding instinct in many gamers' minds that drives them to "hundred-percent" all the games they can find.

On the surface, achievements don't mean much, being little more than meaningless excuses to gloat, virtual street cred for the young (and young-minded) to wave about. Dig a little deeper, however, and you may notice achievements' potential to change games in ways that perhaps not even their developers may notice, altering a game's design or its players' behavior in ways that may not always be benign.

What caused the figurative lightbulb in my head to pop on, like the belabored flickering of the vacuum tube in Fallout 3's "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" intro, were the "unlocks" being implemented Valve's Team Fortress 2.

In case you've been trapped in a time paradox for the past half-decade or so, unlocks are special weapons and equipment available for Team Fortress 2's various character classes. The new unlockables are, well...unlocked by passing certain numbers of achievements. Unlocks are the most telling example of my concern over achievements, mainly because of how strongly the unlocked content can change the way a given class is played.

I think you can see where I'm going with this. Linking unlockable advantages to achievements attached real value to them, making them worth more than meaningless points. Achievements are becoming game-changers. Let's start with the broad strokes first, mainly focusing on TF2 and the class updates. TF2 is an especially important case because of its multiplayer-only, teamplay-focused design. Achievements and unlocks, however, are entirely individual and personal, and thus self-centered. Think about how ridiculous some of the achievements are, like this one, for the Heavy:

Show Trial: Kill an enemy with a taunt.

Seriously? Your fucking taunt? Where will you ever find an opportunity to pull that off in a normal match? Whatever happened to your helping your team achieve victory?

Granted, not every achievement is this ludicrous (some are moreso, in fact), but the point is that questing for achievements undermines team play. It might be fun for you to go out and try hitting 5 enemies in a row with your Medic's bonesaw (without dying or missing, good luck with that), but I'm thinking at least some of your teammates would rather you pull out your goddamned medi-gun and do some healing.

Furthermore, tying unlocks to achievements may well undermine the fairness and balance that makes Team Fortress 2 so great (in addition to its many other beloved qualities). An article in Scientific American examined a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania which concluded that people in general would rather be fair than greedy, often willingly reducing their own benefits in order to make sure that the other guy gets a fair shake.

When selfish achievements are required to make sure the playing field is level (thus making skill and cooperation the defining factor in victory), fairness is systematically undermined. Is that fun or balanced? Not to me.

I developed this attitude shortly after I read a great write-up on Rock Paper Shotgun about the "Achievement servers" that started popping up in the wake of the various class updates. For you tl;dr types, achievement servers exist for the sole purpose of helping players grind achievements with the goal of getting unlocks as soon as humanly possible. They host custom maps designed for that selfsame purpose. TF2 players instantly became more akin to Lineage players. Ugh.

Unlocks also "unlock" a mild form of class discrimination between players. Players who ground away at their achivements became "haves", while noobs and those without OCD became the "have-nots". I've seen some teams on public servers kick or force underequipped newbs to spawn as a different class because they didn't have the unlocks necessary to be useful. Some MMO players regularly find themselves shut out of a raid because their compatriots haven't found the time to farm the necessary-tier gear. Lots of fun, that.

On a more trivial note, achievement farming renders a lot of the stat-tracking features useless. A player who loves rolling Medic but decided to grind Pyro achievements to fit in can no longer find satisfaction in seeing his stats, which would undoubtedly be newly weighted towards his farming time.

Sure, we can just choose NOT to grind the achievements and enjoy the game as a plain ol' K.G.B.-less Heavy, but hey, you're now less versatile. That Medic who would have liked to uber you in the hopes of dinging the "Blunt Trauma" achievement. Sorry, doktor, you'll have to find someone else to help you get the Blutsauger or Ubersaw. And as with the "Show Trial" achievement above, some of those goals are impossible without a controlled setup.

Granted, I might be bitching and moaning about unlocks because I just plain fail at TF2 (and life, for writing this treatise in the first place). Fair enough, I am pretty fail at TF2. But consider this: would I be failing less had I chosen not to have fun, instead putting up with boredom farming the Backburner on an achievement server, to be more useful to my team?

I'd get into some of the more insidious aspects of Achievements and their implications for game design in general, but this entry is long enough as it is. I hope to get a part two out sometime soon.


Mirror's Edge Demo: I'm Kind Of Dizzy Now

After refreshing madly through the night, I finally got my fingers on the Mirror's Edge PS3 demo. 360 users can grab it today, and Wii users can imagine how cool it would be waving their hands in the air to simulate running and then swinging the Wiimote forward to grab on ledges, since that will likely be the only thing they'll get out of this release.

I've been balancing on the fence, trying to decide whether to go console or prefer the PC version, as I usually do with every FPS, sans Resistance (and probably Killzone 2 next year). After this, I can confidently say that I'm going console with this one, for a variety of reasons.

Flash animation worthy of Newgrounds
First among those is the general tone of Mirror's Edge's gameplay. This isn't so much a First-Person Shooter as a First-Person Scrambler. As with every trailer and video seen thus far, the actual fighting takes a secondary role to all the scuttling around you and your stylishly athletic friends do over the various rooftops and conveniently-placed obstacles. The controls and sensitivities reflect that, emphasizing movement over accuracy (though I had more than a few training deaths misjudging a jump or zip-line grab). Gun controls are rudimentary, and I wouldn't be surprised if the final product included some kind of Metal Gear Solid 4-esque trophy or achievement for getting through the game without ever firing a shot or killing a dude. I'd even go as far to say that I'd find Mirror's Edge much less fun if I played it with my standard PC FPS-style WASD movement keys.

The game's unstated goal, and perhaps its greatest appeal, lies in trying as much as possible to maintain a good line, never losing momentum, mastering the course, all the while imagining how cool you (or rather, Faith) would look were you running an action sequence in a movie. If you think of it a certain way, Mirror's Edge is a Stuntman game set on-foot.

No, I'm serious. The red-highlighted objects that mark your course are unvoiced versions of the director's cues, you're awarded greater points (or in this case satisfaction) for pulling off particularly complex or exciting maneuvers, beyond what's required to complete a stage. Most games are about getting to the end and enjoying what's along the way. Stuntman and Mirror's Edge are about getting to the end, and doing again, this time perfectly. On the flip-side, I hope that Mirror's Edge won't demand as much trial-and-error as Stuntman does. Also, I hope Mirror's Edge comes with an instant-replay function. That would be amazing.

A city as designed by Apple. Needs more smug Justin Long.
My only real gripe is that you can't customize the controls. I'd have preferred it if the jump and crouch buttons were on opposite sides of the controller, rather than concentrated on the left (or right, if you use the southpaw configuration).

It would also be better if there were more visual clues as to when and where you can use your Reaction ability (essentially bullet time). I could never tell when I actually had some ready aside from a faint blue flash at the edge of the screen, which isn't enough to notice when you're actually trying to evade capture. I also imagine that frustration would set in when trying to use the more complicated disarm-subdue maneuvers, such as "wall-running" a guard to do a 360-degree throw.

Now excuse me while I try to decide if I want that Timbuk2 bag package on the EA store. Does anyone know if it's a laptop bag or just a regular messenger bag? If the latter I'll save my extra money to actually buy the laptop I intended to store in the aforementioned bag, and settle for the (likely low-quality) "Runner Bag" that comes with a GameStop preorder (pictured below). I'm hoping it won't break as quickly as that Grand Theft Auto IV bag.

Sony Owns Everything You Make in LBP; That's Kinda-Sorta-Maybe OK

In case you haven't yet drowned in the deluge of new releases this month or aren't busy looking for backmasked verses fof Leviticus in Dynasty Warriors: Gundam, some news about alterations to LittleBigPlanet's EULA have floated to the service, revealing a curious phrase highlighting exactly who owns the things you create in Sackboy's PS3 paradise.

Protip: Not you.
You Make It...
The exact line goes (emphasis mine):


You may have the opportunity to post, stream or transmit pictures, photographs, game-related materials, music, home video content or other information through PSN to share with the PSN community. We may provide you with content to use in the creation of User Material. User Material created by you will belong to you, although any content provided by us will still belong to us and/or our licensors as explained in Section 7 above.

You authorise us, our affiliated companies and other PSN users, to use, distribute, copy, modify, display, and publish your User Material throughout PSN and other associated services. You also authorise us and our affiliated companies, without payment to you, to license, sell and otherwise commercially exploit your User Material (for example, selling subscriptions to access User Material and/or receiving advertising revenue related to User Material), and to use your User Material in the promotion of PlayStation products and services. You must not commercially exploit User Material without our consent. You waive any moral rights you may have in your User Material. By posting, streaming or transmitting User Material you represent and warrant that you have all rights necessary to use, post, stream and transmit such User Material and to grant the rights set out in this paragraph."

Sounds ominous, does it not? In fact it's already miffed some of the more privacy-concerned citizens, and with good reason. But there are points to be made in favor, or at least justification of such action by the big black monster that is Sony's legal department.

For one, in an age wherein one buys licenses rather than content, this was inevitable. Control must be maintained, especially in an environment that is arguably more open than any other console game to date, and this is naught but a step towards that end.
...They Own It.

This was slated in the stars to happen, but at what cost? Is there an incentive for a user to create an awesome level when, essentially, Sony owns everything that will result? There's a relatively clear contradiction in the quote above, to boot. "User Material created by you will belong to you," and yet "must not commercially exploit User Material without our consent." Wait, what? Didn't they state back in July that you could sell your levels for teh moneyz? I guess not.

Captaining the good ship Obvious, this is a campaign-funding level change of heart on Sony's part, and sure as hell it scuttles any notion of the "LBP Millionaire" along the lines of a Second Life Realtor. Fine. It may well have been a poor idea in the first place, letting a user PayPal off his Fantastic Fabulous Furry levels, at least without Sony getting a piece of the pie. But again, we ask, why should we bother, then? I'm thinking that question can't really be answered until after LBP drops.

But hey, let's look at the brighter side. I'm of the impression that Sony's been getting a (largely deserved) bad rap of late, but that's just the console warrior in me.

I took a look at the quote, gave it some thought, and made the "well, duh!" assumption that this section is in there because Sony does indeed intend to make mad bank on your blood, sweat, and sackboy stuffing. What I took away from it was this:

At its most basic level, Sony reserves the right to copy-paste assets you create using the in-game tools for use in future commercial DLC or "official levels.

Remember the awesome pirate ship from that early early trailer, back when no one even believed that such shit was possible in a console game? Let's say you made it. According to the above, it's possible for Sony to take it, and put it in some future "Pirates of the Carribean" promotional DLC. At the least, they might put it in a future trailer, promo vid or an E3 presser to tell us that yes, the PS3 has games.

Hey, in a best-case scenario, Sony and Media Molecule might take your awesome level and put it in a "greatest hits" pack that auto-hearts some of the most creative levels. That's a decent thing to do, given how most artistes have such a high view of themselves that they'll tag all of their flat-plane-covered-in-electricity-with-rocket-skateboard levels as "brilliant" and "creative". LBP's community-based promotion system is fun, but once the deluge begins it will quickly prove awkward and unwieldy, mark my words, and this may well be a nice workaround, as well as a way to quickly allow the best of the best to float to the top.

Admittedly, I'm being optimistic about this. In the words of a perceptive Escapist forums user, "it's about creating an environment that encourages creativity which means better levels and fun for everyone. When you don't give the artist any rights to their work, you inhibit that creativity."

Taking the cynical view, all this just means that Sony can now take all your stuff, say it's theirs (it is, technically), and sell it. But out of respect for everything that Media Molecule has wrought, everything that games such as LBP represent, and the niggling little whispers of the console warrior sitting on my shoulder, I'm not yet about to cancel my preorder. All we can do now is hope and pray that a giant multibillion-dollar conglomerate will decide to award its fans another small mercy.

It's worth a shot, don't you think?

Valkyria Chronicles: I Use Tangentially Related Images

So before watching Burn After Reading, I headed out to the San Francisco Metreon to get my soon-to-be-popcorn-flavored fingers on Valkyria Chronicles. Promise rears its head!

Producer Rytarou Nonaka was present to answer questions, sign copies of the case inserts, and raffle off figurines, and give away a really nice-looking oil painting of a pretty, silver-haired German-ish lady, whom assume is one of the "Valkyria".

Why is every anime German chick silver-haired? I thought the ubermensch was blonde.

While I wasn't able to ask Nonaka why they haven't ported Sakura Taisen yet, Jeremy Parish got him to answer other questions on 1up.

Nonaka was a staffer on the Sakura Taisen games, and influences from that franchise are readily apparent in this one. For one, [i]Valkyria Chronicles[/i] also assigns lovely acronyms to its various mechanics. Its battle system is called "BLiTZ" for "Battle of Live Tactical Zones".  Sakura Taisen's combat featured "ARMS" (Active and Real-time Machine System) and its dialog worked with "LIPS" (Live Interactive Picture System). So adorable!

Anyway, impressions! The demo consisted of a tutorial and a first engagement, and I jumped into the latter, as the kid behind me was being a real dick about my hurrying up.

First, the visuals look GREAT. The little "sketch lines" don't really look like much in trailers and low-res screenshots, but live and in motion, combined with the lettered comic-book style sound effects (like XIII but not stupid), the uniqueness is clear. The dramatic fade-outs from real-time polygons to a 2D paper image are also seamless thanks to that twist on typical cel-shading.

Ah, before the horrors of war.
As to gameplay, BLiTZ works a little like the ARMS system. Enemy and player actions are separated by phases. During your phase you use Command Points (CP) to activate individual units' turns. Different units cost different amounts of CP to activate. A tank costs 3, an infantryman costs 1, and so on. Command points can be saved up by forgoing action during a phase, and the like.

When activated, units move freely, and can attack and switch between weapons in real time. Conversely, they can BE attacked by enemies while on the move, like "interrupts" from Jagged Alliance, X-Com and others. It's not uncommon for you to activate a unit, then begin his turn already under fire and taking damage from nearby foes.

It might have been due to my not playing the tutorial (damn kids!), but I couldn't find a way to pause an active unit's turn to consider his actions. A couple of my scouts ended up KO because they got hit by fire while I was trying to decide what to do. Realistic, sure, but it could be a frustration in larger battles. Perhaps you're supposed to consider all actions from the overhead map [i]before[/i] activation, but then again, the overhead map doesn't show firing lines or what cover is most effective.

Sakura Taisen influence is also present in the game's attempt to individualize units via "potentials", which are traits and idiosyncrasies that influence performance. Where one does it through dialog, the other does it in combat.

In the demo, my sniper had "Pollen Allergy". She was KO'd by a mortar blast round before I could check what the hell that meant, but my theory is that her accuracy goes down if she hides in a bush or something. My tank commander also had "Nature Lover". How this sort of hippie thing affects a man driving a gas-guzzling, heavily-armed steel box, I don't know. Maybe it's a subplot.
"Resist Crossfire, receive bacon?"

I learned this from trailers I snagged off the moon-people PSN store, but between battles you can train troops, assign and develop equipment, and other crazy things.

No word yet if there's any kind of relationship-building aspect ala' (you guessed it) Sakura Taisen, but the magic 8-ball points to "no".

Shame, that, since it could be a deal-sweetener. Putting social interaction mechanics into an already-deep "real" game could push that sort of aspect further into general acceptance, as it has with Persona 3, Ar Tonelico, and Thousand Arms. Incidentally, all those games are from ATLUS.

Admittedly, Sakura Taisen was heavier on cheesy dating (LIPS system) than tactical depth (battles took up maybe a quarter of total time spent), but Valkyria Chronicles is the opposite, and would be perfectly complemented by that sort of thing's presence. Make War in the day, Make Love at night! The best of both worlds!