Gone Home (in the Classroom)

Yesterday was my last day teaching an English course for high school students, part of a college prep program, and I wanted to write a blog about my experience using Gone Home as a text in the classroom. This is mostly just a collection of thoughts, so there’s not too much in the way of organization or a driving thesis. This is my second year teaching this course, and given that it’s only a five week program, I only have the students write two five paragraph essays. The first is meant to give them experience tailoring a message to a specific audience, so I share some information about my likes and dislikes and have them write a review of something they think I would like. The second is an analysis paper, where they analyze a text and present a thesis about any number of things (theme, genre, tone, narrative, social issues, etc.). Last summer we played the 1992 version of The Oregon Trail and they discussed who they thought the game was meant for and why it was or wasn’t effective as an educational tool.

This year, I really wanted to use Papers, Please with them, because it fits my parameters for a good game to play in the classroom: it’s easy to control, you can either finish or get a good sense of it in four or less hours, I can get it on PC or Switch (much easier to lug around), and it lacks graphic violence/sexuality. I also like the games I use to have some kind of relatively contemporary social relevance so that students have a point of reference and can tie the two together if they want. Papers, Please worked very well in all regards, but my boss asked me to submit some info on the game to her, and she wasn’t keen on the idea of students playing a game about immigration at this time, mainly because she feared parental reaction. So it was back to the drawing board. After considering my options, I presented both Gone Home and Emily is Away to the four classes I taught, and they unanimously voted for Gone Home. I would have been happy with either choice, but what I liked about the idea of using Gone Home with high schoolers was that, because it’s a narrative adventure game where the player is in control of triggering story elements at their own pace, we could talk about video games as a storytelling platform and compare it to other mediums, like film and fiction writing.

Library

Of course I was still nervous about whether or not they would be into it, even though they voted for it. I had a bad dream the night before we started playing, where none of them cared and I had to keep prompting them to go to a new room and search for clues. So I was very excited when the students in my first class rolled their chairs up to the projector screen and eagerly began instructing the player with the controller where to look and what to investigate (they played the Switch version). All four classes played, and we played for two class sessions, which were two hours each (so, 4 hours). I asked for volunteers to handle the controls, and when there were multiple volunteers they handed the controller over after a set amount of time. The rest of the class openly discussed what should be done, and, as mentioned, told the player where to look, what to read, etc. I’ll be discussing story spoilers, if that matters to you.

Class

One thing I found interesting is that, of the four classes, three of them immediately went to the left when entering the house — as did I, and as did my friend who’s played it. We’d talked as a class a few weeks ago about games using the environment (geography, floor plans, visual cues that are not prompted, etc.) to communicate with the player unwittingly, so after they played I shared with them the fact that 5/6 players had gone to the left without prompting and asked them why they thought that was. They picked up on the fact that the door to the bathroom just to the left was cracked, creating a sense of intrigue and making them think that they could investigate it, whereas to the right was a closed door and a hall that was slightly darker than the one on the left. The game does this elsewhere, so I think this might be something to keep in mind when I do this again. I only interrupted their gameplay once this time around, but maybe next time I could stop them shortly after entering the house specifically to talk about that decision and what the game designers had to do to sneakily urge people to go the direction they wanted them to. You’re meant to start on the left, so (besides locking doors, which they do), how can developers “compose” their level to convince players to go where they want “on their own”? This might prime them to note other places that it happens in the game.

Basement

Three of the classes were really into the game, but the fourth was less so. It was a small class, only seven students, and a couple of them were invested, but the others sort of drifted in and out of being focused. They were a bit of a talkative class that sometimes had trouble focusing in general, so I wasn’t too surprised. They were the class that went to the right when entering the house, and they weren’t sure why they chose to. They were also the only class to miss Terry’s adult magazine in the library, because they weren’t totally focused or investigating extensively. They missed quite a number of artifacts, actually, so when they found the attic key and went directly up there, they were somewhat confused and disappointed by what they found.

Attic Lights 3

Speaking of Terry’s magazine, I found it very hard to keep from laughing when the students found it, because although it’s not at all explicit, it is very apparent what it is, so with every class that found it, I would catch some students whipping their head around to look at me, like they were caught with something or like I was going to yell at them to drop it. And then one student kept trying to pick up the books around it but kept accidentally picking up the magazine, which made everyone joke about how they really must want to take it with them. It was a fun moment.

Oh Dad

The classes that were into it really dug around for clues, and I was impressed that they picked up on the probability that Oscar may have sexually abused Terry. That was something I only vaguely suspected on my first playthrough of the game, but they practiced some great deductive reasoning and collective analysis and were convinced of it, so much so that several of them wrote about it in their papers.

 

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Only a few students from any of the classes suspected that Sam and Katie’s mom may have been having an affair, and that their parents were using couples counseling to try and save their marriage. They were also less than phased by the queerness of the relationship between Sam and Lonnie. They expressed no shock when listening to the first recording that really seems to solidify the feelings between them (the sleepover, where Lonnie tells Sam that she “really likes” her, and Sam hopes that she “meant what I think she did”).

Heart

The only time I stopped my students was just before they went into the attic. Just as they reached the door, I asked them to hold on, and I asked them what they expected to find up there. When I played, I avoided the attic at all cost, even when I’d found the key. Through the notes, context clues, and journal entries, I had the impression that Sam was in love with Lonnie, who was leaving for the Army. Sam was also ostracized at school for her queerness, her parents called it “just a phase” and said that she was “confused,” and her big sister (me, the player) was far away. So I had the grim sense that she might have committed suicide and that I had been hearing her suicide note narrated throughout the game. This was not at all helped by the fact that the attic door was awash in the red lights strung around it, giving it an eerie, dangerous air. Unfortunately, playing on a classroom projector washed out some of the colors, including the red attic door lights. Still, some of my student’s first responses to my question were “a body.” “Whose body?” I asked. Some of them said Oscar, some said a person that Oscar had killed, some of them did say that it might be Sam’s body, some said that it might be the parents, some just shrugged.

Attic Lights

When they went into the attic and got the ending messages, most of them were shocked – but not like I’d expected them to be. When the first class finished and the credits started rolling, one student literally said “Wait, that’s it? So the daughter was a lesbian and she ran away with her girlfriend? I thought there was going to be something scary.” They seemed slightly disappointed, but when we started discussing it they came alive again. I asked them why they thought it was going to be something scary, and they started listing off hints left throughout the game. I said that they didn’t seem to think that the queer relationship was all that surprising, to which they said something to the effect of “well, yeah, that’s normal.” I asked them when the game took place. One student said “ohhhhhh. 1995.” I asked them why the game was set in 1995 and not 2019. They immediately recalled environmental clues, like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” reference, and the ‘zines that Lonnie put out. They didn’t make the connection that Sam probably didn’t have the Internet at the time, either, so she would have much less connection to other queer folk (and I didn’t think to bring it up), meaning that she would feel far more isolated than a normal teen going through a similar situation in 2019. So I asked them if the story could take place today, and they said maybe but that it probably wouldn’t have the same ending. Some students wrote their papers about this — the importance of time, setting, and location on the meaning of the story.

I also asked them how they felt about the horror elements of the game, because some students were using words like “trick” to describe how the game “felt” like a horror game but ended up being more akin to a family drama, or even a teen romance story. They said they liked the horror elements, which I believe, because any time they came to the top of a set of dark, shadowy stairs, or turned a corner to see a curtain that was vaguely shaped like a person, there was hushed tension and sometimes they verbalized their fear (and one student kept covering her eyes). One student briefly mentioned in their paper that the horror elements made the tragic aspects of Sam’s story feel slightly more horrific or scary, and although I wish she’d gone deeper with that thought, I was very happy to see it regardless. Several students did talk about the eerie atmosphere in smart ways, like talking about how it’s Katie’s first time in this house, too, so she would be as creeped out as we were.

 

Stairs

I’m having a little trouble remembering all of the papers that students wrote, because I had to grade fifty papers over the course of two days and I’ve gotten very little sleep this week, but I was generally very impressed with their responses. They were, in some ways, more detailed and textual-evidence rich than the analysis papers that my college students write. I suspect that it might be because I expect my college students to play and analyze the texts on their own time, but my high school students played it collaboratively and were discussing themes and symbols and narrative beats as they went, building off of each other’s ideas and observations. I normally shy away from group work in my college classes, but after this experience I think I want to try this kind of whole-class collaborative analysis with my first-year rhetoric and composition students. It only took my high school students three(ish) hours to beat this game, on average, so I feel like a two week sequence, where we play the game one week, then discuss and write about it a second would be a good practice exercise. Then I could have them choose another game to analyze on their own.

So, in the end, this was a great experience. I asked some students what they honestly felt about it afterward, and they all said that they loved it, and I had a really good time watching them play. I’m also happy about it as a text, because they were heavily invested in unraveling the narrative on their own, plus their group analysis resulted in some very insightful assessments. I can’t wait to use it again.

 

 

Dragon Quest XI Performs its Best Puff-Puff: Joey has an Enormous Grin on His Face

Dragon Quest VIII is high on my list of favorite games of all time. I bought it on a whim while on vacation, and I spent two solid weeks playing it for hours and hours. I hunted down and crafted all the best gear, I beat all of the post-game quests, and I took down the most difficult optional bosses. It was the kind of game that made me want more, even if it was just merchandise, so I ran out while I was still playing it to buy the official strategy guide and this beautiful and completely ridiculous controller:

DQ Controller

That was almost fifteen years ago. Since then, I have been desperate for a new console DQ game. I’ve played DQ IV, VII, and IX on the DS/3DS, and I bought but haven’t yet played V.  These portable versions of the DQ experience are excellent. They vary slightly in mechanics, but they all capture their own version of the classic and magical DQ formula. But I have always preferred my RPGs on console. It would be easy to say that it’s because the graphics are often better, allowing for more fully realized and visually stimulating worlds, but I think it goes beyond that, in a way. For some reason, I forget about portable games more easily. Sometimes I even have trouble remembering which portable DQ game was which. I still loved them, but there was something missing, and only a new, full console entry would satisfy that craving I had.

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And Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age did indeed satisfy that craving. It scratched that itch. Satiated that hunger.  It was big, beautiful, familiar and fresh.  This isn’t a formal review, but I want to get some of my thoughts down, so there will be some spoilers. First, I want to say that, as with DQ VIII, I was consistently impressed with the graphics. Both games are obviously highly stylized, with VIII using the then-fairly-new cel shading approach. That was a good choice, as it allowed Square Enix to create what looked like an anime or a comic book in a 3D space, which was charming and surprisingly immersive. The graphics in DQ XI are more refined and advanced, of course, but they are similarly successful in using crisp black outlines to make the game look like a really good cartoon realized in 3D. They used the Unreal Engine, which I guess explains some of the realistic lighting and water effects, which adds an interesting element and makes the world feel a bit richer and more real. Technical stuff aside, the art style, colors, shadows, enemy animations, environments and more were gorgeous and I found myself in awe of one scene or another all the way to the 200 hour point, which is when I stopped playing.

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There have been some complaints about the soundtrack, since the orchestral versions of many tracks that were already recorded were not used. I can understand and agree with this to some extent, but contributors to two different popular podcasts used words like “atrocious” and “terrible” and “horrible” to describe the existing digital recordings, which I think is ridiculously overstated and hyperbolic. They aren’t as good as the orchestral versions used in DQ VIII, true, and maybe the composer is a raging, closed-minded asshole, but the tracks themselves are as solid and classic as they always have been. It seems odd to retroactively evaluate them because they aren’t the better versions.

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I had my doubts about the cast going into the game. Though I successfully avoided most discussion of the game, I had heard from one person that this was the best cast in the series. Being so fond of the cast from VIII, of course, I was unsure how anyone could top them. And looking at the designs of these new characters did little to alleviate that concern. But, once again, I was taught the valuable lesson that you have to experience something fully in order to appreciate it, for better or worse. In this case, it was for better. Between each character’s backstory and their excellent voice acting, I quickly fell in love with this cast. They may look like fairly typical anime types on paper, but the game’s writing and performances elevate them, as is the case with many an admirable anime or video game. I’ll talk more about some of the characters later, but whether it was the lustful old nobleman, the stoic and loyal-to-a-fault knight, or the sassy little witch, I adored my friends and travel companions.

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In a blog post I wrote for 1UP.com ages ago, one of the things I talked about was how fun the combat was in DQ VIII, despite its old-school design and the usually-annoying random battles. Well, even though I was okay with random battles in VIII, they got rid of them in XI while maintaining the straightforward yet still strategic turn-based combat, which just means that it was that much more rewarding. I found myself actively seeking out new enemies to fight, just to see how they looked and fought on the combat screen. I also liked that you could see your characters, and though I didn’t use it, the option to move around the combat field (or revert to classic, first-person mode) was also nice. And the fact that you could team up with teammates to do combined attacks was pretty cool, and reminded me of a certain other game that pioneered these kinds of attacks in RPGs: Chrono Trigger.

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M-Magus’ castle? No, but…

It’s no surprise that these games share design elements. It’s in their DNA. Chrono Trigger was the product of a collaboration between some key designers of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, including artist Akira Toriyama and writer/designer Yuji Hori, who created the DQ series. So I’ve seen some familiar strands in all of the DQ games that I’ve played, but this game was by far the most Chrono Trigger-esque of them all. Some of what they shared: Silent protagonist. Character who sacrifices their life to save their friends, only to be saved by breaking a time egg/sphere and travelling back in time. The aforementioned double/triple(/quadruple, now) techs. The need to upgrade your air “ship” to break through the final enemy’s outer layer/shield. Floating islands inhabited by ancient beings. A monarch who is corrupted by the final boss. The main character being thrown in jail (by a different corrupt monarch in CT), only to escape (I should note that you fight a dragon tank to escape in Chrono Trigger and there is a dragon in the caverns beneath the prison in DQ XI that chases you as you escape). The daughter of the corrupted monarch is a tom-boyish princess who shuns the normal trappings of royalty, and in both cases there is a scene where they share a moment of understanding and open up to their father, who returns the sentiment. The main character is fatherless. There’s a scene in a dark wizard’s castle where a doppelganger of a familiar character asks you to die for them. There is a mythical sword that you need special, ancient material to transform into a weapon that can pierce a major boss’ defense. And aside from the standard design elements that you’d expect from Toriyama (spiked hair, earrings everywhere, etc.), there are a few specific artifacts that seemed far more Chrono than the other elements. Namely, the places out of time in the two games:

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The End of Time, a stone island in a sea of dark fog (source: http://www.onrpg.com/news/editorial/retro-review-chrono-trigger/)
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The Realm Between Worlds, a stone island in a sea of dark fog

And the final boss in both games begins in what looks to be a space suit, and has a right arm/pod and left arm/pod that you have to destroy (and that he can revive).

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Lavos, inner core: large creature with an exosuit and arms that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body
Chrono Trigger Lavos
Lavos, final form: creature with what looks like a space helmet, with two pods that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body
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Calasmos: large creature with an exosuit and space helmet, with arms that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body

And I’m probably missing/forgetting a bunch of other parallels. Look, I’m not saying this is so close in design as to be a near perfect DNA match, but there are enough similarities that I found myself wishing Square Enix would assign this team to whatever future Chrono Trigger project they deem worthy of development. They won’t, because the DQ series is still huge in Japan and I doubt they’d even divert a notable portion of the team to something as risky as a new Chrono game, especially given that the most recent entry in that series came out twenty years ago. But, still. It was enough to stir up pleasant memories, and enough to make a fella hopeful.

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One last similarity between the two games, and one that relates to another topic I want to discuss, is the female characters. While there are valid criticisms about gender representation in both games, they also both have lots of interesting, varied, and strong female characters. And because I’ve been spoiled by the romance mechanics of series like Mass Effect and Persona, I couldn’t help but find myself wondering who I would romance if I had the chance. I must not have been the only one, either, because Square Enix is adding the ability to marry characters other than Gemma (or live with, if same-sex, which is disappointing but not unexpected) to the upcoming Nintendo Switch version of the game. With that said, I will now spend an unreasonable, borderline creepy, amount of time going through some of the ladies I would date, if possible, in the Switch version of the game.

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Krystalinda, the feisty ice witch of Sniflheim, is as good a place to start as any. I mean, she’s a feisty ice witch. That descriptor alone would make her a nominee for romance in an RPG that gave me the choice.  She’s powerful, smart, flirty, and she seems to have a deep and interesting backstory that the game barely touches. She has crazy, cute hair, she’s curvy and sexy, and she’s a reformed bad girl but current badass. I guess there’s a chance she might freeze me or trap me in a book forever or something, but I think I might be willing to take that chance. Feisty. Ice. Witch.

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Frysabel is Krystalinda’s current BFF. She is also queen of Sniflheim, and as queen she is graceful, thoughtful, and willing to make hard choices, like forgiving Krystalinda for attacking her queendom despite her people’s reluctance to trust the (feisty ice) witch. She is also impossibly cute. I have a bit of a thing for glasses, so maybe that’s it, but I couldn’t stop myself from visiting her court every now and then just to see her, with the hopes that I might be able to help her once again and see her warm smile.

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I’m going to pretend she was preparing to hug me DON’T JUDGE ME OKAY I’M LONELY

You know what else I might have a thing for? Queens. Because I was also head over heels – head over tails? – for Marina, the queen of the mermaids of Nautica. I mean… come on! It’s almost unfair. She’s the queen. Of the mermaids. She has such a presence. Her people love her, she is firm and decisive, she’s powerful and wise, she looks strong as hell, and she thinks I’m cute even as a fish. If this game did have a romance mechanic, I would feel so torn and weirdly guilty for not choosing her. There’s a point in the game where it seems like it’s hinting that she might not come back from her mission to protect her queendom, and I actually felt myself starting to get misty-eyed. Yep. I know. We don’t have to say it. Let’s move on.

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And while we’re revealing patterns, maybe I also have a thing for mermaids, because one of my favorite quests in the game centers around Michelle, a pink-haired, love-struck mermaid. Like the other mermaids, she spoke in rhyme, and she did so with an adorable accent. And pink is my favorite color, so she is extra visually appealing to me. Her tale is tragic, but I can’t help but admire how absolutely unshakable is her dedication to Kai, the sailor she saved. Because of that dedication, I doubt she’d be a possible dating choice, even if the game allowed it, but she would totally be on my list otherwise.

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Grand Master Pang is the head of Angri-La, training grounds of the most disciplined and skilled martial artists in the world. And who trained and disciplined them? That’s right. Grand Master Pang, the baddest of asses. Nothing seems to phase her, even death, and she is a master of all of the moves that even the legendary Luminary has yet to learn. She’s strong but never seems to break a sweat, she is gorgeous, witty, and supremely wise. In fact, she might be the most intimidating of any character in the game to romance, if she were ever even an option. But would that stop me from trying? No. Even if it meant a few whacks from the discipline stick. Heck, maybe because it meant a few whacks from the discipline stick, ho ho, ha ha, okay moving on.

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Miko. The hottie from Hotto. She is yet another badass warrior, though I wish they’d done more to actually show that side of her. We do see her being a firm and commanding leader of her village, and making an incredibly tough decision, but we only hear of the ferocious battles from her past. We do see her as a mother willing to sacrifice everything, including her life, for the chance to save her son, though, and I took the fiery heat beneath Hotto to be a metaphor for Miko’s passion, so she has plenty to offer as a romantic partner. Plus, again: hottie.

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So far the list has been in no particular order, but these last two are in categories of their own because they are party members, so I spent a lot of time with them and learned much more about their personalities and histories. At first glance, I wouldn’t have expected to be into Serena. Her beauty isn’t as explosive or apparent as the other women I’ve mentioned. She comes off as fairly timid, soft-spoken, pretty, and… safe? But I really loved her backstory, and I especially dug her metamorphosis after Veronica’s funeral. She doesn’t maintain the attitude, powers, or look once you go back in time, but I understood that transformation to mean that she had those underlying traits within her.  Even with those aside, she is selfless, compassionate, sweet, charming, and often surprisingly funny. If I had to make a split decision about who I was going to date, I might have chosen her in the scene where she cuts her hair short. She went from vulnerable and defeated, to determined and resolute. And that accent. *swoon*

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But, ultimately, who would I probably end up pursuing at all cost? Who would I peek at a guide or an FAQ to make sure I wasn’t messing up my chances with? The answer, of course, is Jade, but I never would have expected it, myself. With her huge boobs and long ponytail, she seemed in danger of being a stereotypical sexpot character. At least that’s what I thought when looking at the game art, before playing the game. But her introduction in the game, as a seriously kickass martial artist who takes no shit and has a kind of jaded mystery about her, made me rethink my assumptions in short order. She was almost always the first to attack the most powerful foes. When Hendrik showed up and tried to cut me down, she leapt into action, literally, relieving him of his horse and riding off with me on the back. When Jasper arrived at the Tree of Life, she again jump-kicked right at him with no fear. She always had my back no matter what, she is brave, fierce, and intelligent, and she can even transform into a dark and somewhat more risqué, sexier version of herself. She was my most powerful ally, too, so she never left my side in battle. So, yeah. If I ever find another 200 hours to sink into the Switch version, which I am definitely buying, my first choice for a romantic partner will be the supremely divine Jade.

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Okay, phew. I’m all tuckered out, like I just finished a lengthy Puff Puff session. I have many more thoughts about the game, like why not just say that Sylvando is gay? Why hide it under the subtext of a carnival? What is this, the 1960s? And yes, I know Japan is behind the times a bit when it comes to LGBTQ representation, but this could have been a huge stride forward for them. He’s a great character and I think they did a fairly decent job making him well-rounded and deep, but don’t just bury his sexuality in a vague journal entry in his father’s house.  They could have done it in one line. But that is one of my very few minor complaints about the game. As I did with VIII, I became obsessed with Dragon Quest XI. I hunted down and crafted all the best gear, I beat all of the post-game quests, and I took down the most difficult optional bosses. And, because of the miracle of modern console gaming, this time I got a platinum trophy for my trouble. But it wasn’t trouble. Every single minute of it was fun, and I seriously, seriously, seriously hope we don’t have to wait fifteen years for a console sequel. If Square Enix doesn’t hear my prayers and have this team work on a new Chrono game, at least let them iterate on the excellence of this game, as it itself is an iteration on all of the best parts of the games that came before it. VIII, for me, has the benefit of fuzzy, warm, magical nostalgia, but ultimately I think XI is a better game in almost every way. But I love them both. A whole heck of a lot.

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Persona 3 Extravaganza

Apparently I’ve made a habit of playing a new Persona game every summer. In 2017, it was Persona 5, 2018 saw Persona 4: Golden, and this summer I finally got around to playing Persona 3 Portable. Part of this newly formed annual tradition is practical. Persona games are not short, and I really don’t like taking breaks in the midst of big games when work starts to pile up, so summer is the best time to really dig in and enjoy games like this. Aside from that, it’s actually become something kind of special for me. I’ve mentioned previously that I somehow, at some point, started getting seasonal summer depression every year. So having a game from a series that I’ve grown to love to distract me, even for just a couple of weeks, and one that imprints itself onto my memory in such a warm and magical way that only the best kinds of video games can, has become invaluable to me. Even though I ran out and bought the PlayStation 2 versions of Persona 3 and Persona 4 when I fell in love with Persona 5, I ended up choosing the PS Vita version of P4: Golden and the PSP entry of Persona 3, because in both cases I’d read that slight improvements had been made to things like combat that appealed to me.

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Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised by how good P4: Golden looked on my big HDTV. The scaling on the PS Vita software must be great, because I didn’t see nearly the kind of mud or aliasing that I’d expected to, given that it was designed for a screen the size of a medium cell phone. P3 Portable, on the other hand, looked pretty ugly when I first booted it up. And, well, the next several times I played it as well. Not that I was surprised. It was made almost twenty years ago for a four inch, low res screen. But even in terms of artwork and design, I was initially struck by how much… simpler this game was, compared to P4 and P5? ‘Simple’ is not the right word, but I could see early on in the game that many of the design elements (like the fluid menu screens, use of a primary color theme, etc.) were present but perhaps not as polished or iterated upon/layered as they would become in later installments.

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I’m sounding very negative for a game that I started this blog out implying that I liked very much, but my initial impressions were indeed somewhat muted by the lack of polish and the technical limitations. Speaking of technical limitations, even though I played this version on my PSTV, apparently the screenshot function doesn’t work for PSP ports, so I ended up using my phone to take pictures of my TV. So I apologize for any centering or blur issues, even though in many cases the pictures I took made things like fonts look softer and less jagged. Anyway, I want to say that all of these thoughts about how graphically inferior the game looked lasted a fairly short time. After getting into the story, and probably getting used to the visuals, I virtually forgot about the issue. Character, background, and creature designs were very familiar, so after a while the outdated graphics just didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game.

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And enjoy the game I did – maybe not as much as P4 and P5, but the same emotional pull snagged me in this entry as well. There are a lot of things to like about these games, but I think it’s the cast of characters and the relationships you build with them that draws me in the most. I’ve said before that my absolute favorite games are the ones that stick with me when I stop playing them – the kind that I find myself absent-mindedly imagining myself living in when I close my eyes to go to sleep. The worlds of the Persona games are rich and colorful and vibrant, but without the many characters that inhabit them, they are lonely and dull places to fantasize about. P3’s cast isn’t my favorite, but there are some absolute standouts, like Aigis, Ms. Toriumi, Chidori, and, even though he doesn’t speak, Koromaru. These and other characters have such interesting and unique backgrounds and side-stories that they really bring the world to life. And, of course, one of my favorite features of these games is the romance system. Although, I, uh, I have a bit of a confession to make:

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Okay, hold on, I know I look bad here, but let me explain. P3 doesn’t allow you to max out romanceable character’s social links without, well, romancing them, and not only did I want to max everyone, I also wanted to see every relationship play out for research. No, seriously! The Persona games are going to play a central role in my dissertation so I wanted to document the end of each relationship. But, you know what? Judge if you want, but I had a lot of fun dating everyone. There were a lot of fun ladies in this entry! And, as Chihiro will remind you:

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So. Yeah. Take that. Anyway, the first woman I saw was Mitsuru, and with her red hair and motorcycle, I was convinced that she would be the one I would fall for. But after talking to her for a while, she seemed very stiff and all-business, and I couldn’t seem to break through the walls she had put up to keep people at bay. So my first girlfriend was Chihiro, and I actually thought she might be my Ultimate Boo, too, because she was so shy and nerdy and kind and pretty. Alas, it wasn’t to be. I was also very keen on Aigis, and she is definitely Ultimate Boo Number Two, but the universe has a way of bringing things full circle sometimes, so of course I ended up totally falling for Mitsuru after all. Sure, she was all work and no play early on, but once I got closer to her and saw a peek behind the curtain of her life, it made perfect sense, and I grew to admire that about her. She wasn’t a robot (no offense, Aigis!), though. She was sensitive, passionate, fierce, and a freaking genius. Oh, and drop dead gorgeous, with her crimson hair, high boots, and perfect face.

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Okay, I’m letting the romance dominate this discussion, but a quick final note about the cast of characters. Playing these games in reverse order ended up producing exciting ‘cameos’ from characters in later games. The beach scenes were funny enough on their own, but I was literally laughing out loud when I saw Ms. Kashiwagi from Persona 4, because I knew what was coming. Obviously her appearance in P4 was more like a real cameo, but still. It was hilarious. And holy crap, President Tanaka is a dick.

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P4 and P5 obviously had lots of religious and cultural design elements from other nations/religions, especially in the designs of the shadows. I always thought the idea of essentially summoning Christian characters such as Satan and Lucifer to fight for you was interesting and potentially provocative, depending on who you asked. So I was especially surprised and, to be honest, tickled, to see some incredibly blatant Christian symbolism in P3, far more than in the other two games. You can still summon Satan and Lucifer to fight for you, but this time one of the primary antagonists bears a striking resemblance to certain depictions of Jesus, halo and all. And at a certain point your entire party is crucified. Add this to the fact that your characters have to commit mock-suicide in order to summon their personas, and I am totally blown away by the lack of controversy surrounding this game. I guess it was niche enough to escape any serious mainstream attention. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. I shudder to think of how the rest of the series might have played out if the original P3 had been legitimately censored or boycotted.

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I haven’t been all that careful with spoilers here, but I’m usually pretty adamant about not being too explicit in explaining things so that I don’t spoil too much. But I can’t respond to the ending of the game without spoiling it in some sense. So, if you are concerned about that, skip ahead a bit. I’m not here to analyze it or anything, but I will say that it kind of fucked me up. I mean, the main character’s fate is technically implied, not explicitly spelled out, but it’s pretty clear that I died a slow, gradual death. Not only that, I did so in Aigis’s lap, just as she concluded her long internal journey of understanding her humanity and the fact that she will outlive me. I was happy to have the opportunity to run around and see my friends before the end, but of course many of them noted that I looked sick, which was hint enough to me that I was on the way out. Ugh, It was rough.

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So once again I found myself completely immersed in and in love with a Persona game. I will eventually go back and play the first two games in the series, even though I hear they aren’t quite the same as the most recent three. Although I played through both P4 and P5 more than once, I don’t have time to play through P3 a second time, which is unfortunate because I really wanted to check out the female protagonist and how her story is, apparently, somewhat different than her male counterpart’s. Maybe I’ll have time again someday. Until then, I have other games to fill my time, like…

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Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight! I told you this was a Persona 3 extravaganza! I bought this game when it came out, but I didn’t want to play it until I played Persona 3 proper. When I first played Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight, I was so enamored with the beautiful, crisp, high definition character models of my beloved P5 cast, and the original P5 was released less than two years earlier, meaning the leap in graphical fidelity wasn’t exactly huge. So imagine my response going immediately from the antiquated, twenty year-old P3 Portable to the same kind of glittering, gorgeous renditions of my now-also-beloved P3 cast.

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My thoughts about this game are very similar to my thoughts about P5: DiS, because, well, the games were made in tandem and follow the same exact formula. I’m not complaining. It was a beautiful, fun extension of my time with these characters that I love. Most of the original P3 voice actors returned, and many of them sounded exactly the same, so it was an overload of sensory exhilaration. The gameplay itself is fairly basic but fun enough, and I love the attention to detail with the fun costumes, accessories, and levels, but the heart of the experience is seeing the cast interact with one another, their reaction to Elizabeth, and exploring their individual rooms.

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So I don’t have much else to say about the game other than that I had a lot of fun and , thus, ended up getting the platinum trophy for it, but I will repeat something that I said about P5: DiS. Seeing the care that went into developing these great new character models and levels, and the willingness to hire returning voice actors, made me wonder if Atlus would go through all of this work just for these dancing games. Creating assets that can be used and reused is becoming pretty common practice in the industry because it saves so much development time and money, and it’s hard not to wonder if P5: DiS’s character models will end up in Persona 5 Royal, so is it that much of a stretch to think that there will be some kind of new version or reboot or spinoff of Persona 3? Maybe, maybe not, I suppose. But I for one would welcome a return to Gekkoukan High, Paulownia Mall, and anywhere Mitsuru wants to take me on a date. Because she’s gonna be my sugar momma. Don’t @ me, as they say.

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Spring 2019 in Review

I let the semester overwhelm me again, so I ended up not writing about the games I was playing between grading, lesson plans, and research. I made time to continue playing games, but that didn’t leave time for much else. So this will be a catch-up blog, where I share just a few thoughts about the games I’ve played over the last few months. I’ll skip my return to Stardew Valley, but I did spend a whole crapload of time with a new farm, attempting to work toward the platinum trophy on PS4. I started getting antsy after the third year, so I moved on before getting the trophy, but I will just say that I married Leah this time around, because that’s important, right?

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Anywho. I feel like some of these games, like Kingdom Hearts III, deserve a lot more attention, but I want to do an E3 post soon, and I’m currently in the middle of working on my dissertation prospectus, so a few thoughts will have to do. Like many, I remember when Square Enix announced the original Kingdom Hearts, and it sounded like a game that was too good to be true. As a fan of most Disney movies and Final Fantasy games, I couldn’t believe characters from both universes would be in the same game, made only more incredible by the fact that Disney’s track record with video games was spotty, at best. Now, one of the biggest video game developers in the world was going to have license to create stories that bring some of the most famous Disney characters together and have them interact with characters from some of my favorite video games? Uh, yes. Hells to the yes, in fact.

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Having said that, I don’t think I loved the original two games as much as so many others seemed to. Don’t get me wrong, it was thrilling and super fun exploring each new Disney world, seeing Mickey, Aladdin, Simba, and more in the same game as Cloud, Squall, and Moogles. But I have never been a fan of the floaty, loose combat in games like Kingdom Hearts, Devil May Cry, and NieR: Automata. So, as fun as the story and interactions were, the combat was a bit of a drag, because it wasn’t engaging and I just wanted to get on to the next world. I think the same goes for Kingdom Hearts III. I don’t envy anyone who had to actually review this game. I can absolutely see two perspectives: those that played all of the side games may have absolutely loved it, but people like me, who have only played the three core games, were left feeling a little lost, even after watching the included “The Story So Far” videos and a 45 minute series recap on YouTube.

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In the end, though, my reaction was much the same as it was for KH  and KH2, if not slightly colored by my disappointment in the lack of Final Fantasy characters. I still really liked the game and spent many hours getting the Ultima Keyblade and doing various other side quests. I loved the summons, the Toy Story, Frozen, and Winnie the Pooh worlds were awesome, and it was actually really charming and adorable fighting alongside Rapunzel. It just didn’t hit me the way other big, narrative RPGs do, I think maybe in part because it has some old school game design elements that are not my favorite. I was so excited to get my own ship and explore the open seas in the Pirates of the Caribbean world, but then they just keep throwing wave after wave of enemy ships at me, preventing me from exploring in peace. And in most of the levels you know when enemies are going to pop up because of the way the physical space is designed. These are fairly minor complaints, sure, but they made for an experience that had me like “oh, this is great! I just wish…” throughout most of the game.

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Far Cry New Dawn

As much as I just rambled on about Kingdom Hearts III, I don’t have much to say about Far Cry New Dawn. I liked Far Cry 5, and New Dawn is a pretty straightforward extension of that game. The map is slightly smaller, there are less side quests, and a lot of the weapons are a little more slapdash, but it felt very familiar, which wasn’t a bad thing. It just means that it didn’t strike as deep. I had a lot of fun with the Blood Dragon bow, some of the neon landscapes were very pretty, and the story wasn’t bad.

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Anthem

Some of BioWare’s previous games are among my favorites of all time, but I knew going into Anthem that it wasn’t going to have the same narrative hooks to snare me. I’m not a huge fan of looter shooters, so that particular gameplay loop of going on a mission, getting loot, rinse and repeat, isn’t compelling to me. It’s fun, but I do get bored after a while. Such was the case with Anthem. I played through the main story, did all of the side missions (I think), and had an absolute blast exploring the world. Seriously, the gameplay loop may not have been compelling, but traveling around the map was so fun that it almost didn’t matter. I liked customizing my javelin (though I wish there were more options), pretending like I was starting a romance with Tassyn, and improving Fort Tarsis, but after all of that I was just kind of like “now what?” There’s always a new game to play so I don’t often return to games-as-service, and maybe that’s why no matter how much fun I have with them they never quite blow me away.

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The Division 2

Me, one paragraph ago: “I’m not a huge fan of looter shooters”

Me, now: “So here’s another looter shooter that I played for many hours!”

I said I’m not a huge fan, okay? I still enjoy them… I just don’t usually seek them out. I played the first Division after all of the ‘problems’ with the early release had been patched out, so I had a lot of fun running around the trashy streets of New York. The overall outbreak narrative was presented well, and they did such an excellent job of filling the world with little stories and Easter eggs that before I knew it I had sunk a few dozen hours into a game that I’d never expected to get into.

My experience with the sequel was similar. The narrative world building that they enact in these games is what makes me want to play them by myself. I restrained myself, though, to play through most of the game with my friend, Tabitha, because clearing out buildings and taking on overpowered, armored bosses was definitely more fun with a friend. One of my biggest complaints about the first game was the severe lack of character customization options. They added lots of options here, but it’s still far from perfect. I could have a beard of several colors except my natural color: red. Really? Purple is more common than red?

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One thing I realized while playing is how varied my history with weapon loadouts has been. Years ago, I used to go for mid-range automatic weapons. I wanted to be able to dump a lot of ammo if need be, but also have a decent chance of hitting someone from a distance; that held true for the first Division, where I almost exclusively used assault rifles, sometimes bringing a sniper rifle out to take a couple of shots before moving up into the fray. In the sequel, my loadout was primarily a sniper rifle with no scope, and a shotgun. I stayed at a distance when I could, but if I had to I was able to run in and single-shot a few guys with the shotgun. I bring this up not only as a general note for myself, but also to point out that I was happily surprised at how the enemy AI had evolved. When I first began playing, I thought that the game was very close to the original, but not in a bad way. After a while, though, I realized that the enemies were much smarter and more aggressive than they used to be. In the first game I could sit pretty far back with my assault rifle and take out the stationary enemies before picking off the few remaining guys that would take a pretty straightforward path to reach me. In The Division 2, they stay in cover longer, use gear to pin me down, and work their way around me while covering for each other. It was frustrating, but in a good way. Overall, I had a good time with the game, even if the post-campaign content didn’t seem to live up to the hype that I’d been reading.

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Punch Line

Oh, Punch Line. What a wonderfully Japanese game. The dissertation that I’m currently writing a prospectus for is about Japanese games, so when I heard that there was a Japanese game where you’re a ghost that has to avoid looking at panties or the world explodes and the game “ends,” I knew I needed to play it. It’s originally a PS Vita game, but was ported to the PS4, which is what I played it on. Being just a port, it wasn’t exactly pretty. It’s a subbed game, so the voices are all still in Japanese, and the game is actually more like an episodic anime (which is what it is based on) than what I was expecting. There is a ton of narrative and not much gameplay, but that was actually fine with me, because the game was genuinely very funny at times.

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Japanese games and anime are pretty notorious for their objectification of female characters, but sometimes I think they fail to get the credit they deserve for also making female characters warriors, protagonists, and villains more often than Western games and movies do. This game is a decent example of this dichotomy. Although the central aspect of the gameplay is to avoid looking at women’s panties (without their knowledge or consent), this is something that you can still choose to do, and there are trophies for looking at all of them (which means that the game both discourages and encourages you to do it). However, on the flip side, the cast of mostly female characters includes a famous superhero, a genius android, a hardcore gamer, and a horny, drunken almost-thirty year-old woman. These are roles and characteristics not often afforded to female characters in many Western games, and they’re all in this one game. I’m not casting judgement or making excuses for anything, but I do think that this is an interesting observation worth considering. There’s another observation I want to make in the next paragraph, and although I don’t expect many people will read this, I should note that it’s a major spoiler, so if you have any interest in playing this game, I’d skip the next paragraph.

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After a series of cut scenes setting up the premise of the game, you take control of Yuuta, a young man who, as mentioned, gets “too excited” when he looks at panties and if he does so for too long, causes the destruction of the planet. Except, fairly late in the narrative, you find out that Yuuta is a man’s spirit in a woman’s body, presenting as a man (and voiced by a woman). It’s a little convoluted. He was a man, and because of an event in the game, he ended up swapping spirits with a woman, who swapped spirits with another man. In the end, a plan does emerge to return Yuuta to his original body. So, technically speaking, Yuuta is not a trans character, but I think it’s interesting and important that the main character of this game is, in an abstract (or symbolic) way at least, trans. First, Yuuta is not depicted as being upset or ‘haunted’ by being in the body of a woman. He adjusts his style and physical actions to ‘pass,’ but at points he explicitly says he has no interest in trying to get his old body back. Further, the female characters surrounding him, while expressing surprise when finding out, don’t ostracize or shun him at all. In fact, they mostly ignore the idea and treat Yuuta as one of the group, as they always have. This gender swap isn’t made a central source for jokes and is a minor plot point that takes a back seat to most of the other character interactions and narrative beats. Does this make this a queer game, or a game that highlights a trans character in a glowing, positive light? I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that, but I do think it depicts issues of gender and identity in a way I’ve never seen in any game, Japanese or otherwise, and complicates the idea that Japanese games always mishandle queer characters and issues. I’ve only played the game once through, so I’m not trying to deliver a convincing thesis here, but I do think this game is surprisingly relevant and potentially important.

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Video Game Crushes: Quistis Trepe

Final Fantasy VIII was the first RPG I played that had an explicit love story at the center of its plot. Others had hints of romance, but you mostly had to create your own romantic relationships in your mind if you wanted that to be a part of your story. Having said that, FFVIII was also the first game that made me wish I could actually choose my romantic partner, as the BioWare games would go on to become famous for. Don’t get me wrong, Rinoa would make a fine partner, but I found myself being angry at the game for not letting me date Quistis Trepe, the talented, smart, badass Garden instructor.

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There’s a reason she has a fan club. She was so capable that she became a SeeD at 15 and had classes full of students her own age at 18. I don’t have anything against wilting flowers, but there’s something so attractive about a woman that is that intelligent, accomplished, and strong. When she almost made a pass at me (as Squall), early in the game, and the game forced me to dismiss her coldly, I was furious. How is this not the woman I’m supposed to be with? Her aesthetic is beautiful and bookish, stoic and stylish. She can be stern and serious, and compassionate and playful. She has a freaking whip. Those glasses! That hair! Ugh. I swear, if they ever remake FFVIII, I want options to socialize and romance different people, like in the Persona and BioWare games. I know they won’t, I know, but I want it. Trepies for life.

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Source: https://finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Quistis_Trepe

Resident Evil 2 Infects My Heart

So the semester is well under way, and although this is my first semester with no coursework, between lesson planning, grading, and reading/prepping for my prospectus (not to mention making time for games/relaxing), I’ve once again fallen behind on posting blogs. I really want to write out my thoughts about Resident Evil 2 before they slip even further from my mind, though, so this is going to be a ramble-y mess of a blog, but here goes.

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First off, as I like to do, I should explain my history with the series to contextualize my feelings. I grew up a Nintendo kid, so I loyally bought a Nintendo 64 even though the then-new PlayStation was getting a surprising amount of hype. There were several games that got my attention and made me want to betray my fanboy roots, but ultimately it was the original Resident Evil 2 that pushed me to convince my parents to buy me a PS. Before then, my sister’s boyfriend had one, and we three played the hell out of the first game, Resident Evil. I usually played while they watched, but we turned the lights off and eagerly consumed every classic, b-movie moment.

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Source: http://horadoterror.com/top-13-jogos-terror-ps1/

So of course Resident Evil 2 was the first game I bought for my shiny new PlayStation, along with Resident Evil: Director’s Cut. I wrote about the former on my Top 25 list, saying “Resident Evil 2 was magical in that it retained the same haunted, abandoned feeling that the first game had, but amped it up in every aspect.” I think that sums up my feelings about it pretty nicely, so let’s fast forward 17 years to when Yoshiaki Hirabyashi announced in a 2015 YouTube video that Capcom had approved a remake for RE2, and you can probably guess that I was pretty ecstatic. Over the years I’ve learned to be cautious with my excitement, though, so after my initial freak-out session, I allowed myself to forget about the game until it came out this year. And here we are.

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Having said all of that, I might come off as biased, but I objectively think this game is going to make for an interesting conversation piece when the game of the year discussions begin. It’s clearly going to be in the running for some awards, but will gaming sites consider it a new game, thereby eligible for the top spot? Or is the fact that it’s ‘mostly’ a remake disqualifying? I suppose what matters more is the standard it will set for future remakes and reboots. This game didn’t have to be this good. Look at the recently released Spyro Reignited Trilogy. That game’s developers largely left the core game untouched, but they did an excellent job of updating the presentation. Fans were, from what I hear, mostly very happy, but the game(s) didn’t seem to reach a profoundly expanded audience. Resident Evil 2 sold millions of copies and was all over social media for weeks. It seems likely that many of the people who played it had never played the original, meaning that if done well, remakes can actually greatly expand a series’ fanbase and not just appeal to the base that already exists.

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I’m waxing philosophical, so let me get a little more specific in what I loved about the game. I’d like to start with the feeling I had when first entering the police station. Although I was more excited to play as Claire, I chose Leon to start with because he was the recommended starting character for the original game, so I wanted to experience this version just as I did its source.

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Entering the police station in the original RE2 was like entering the mansion in RE (with the difference being that you are in control of the frantic fleeing that precedes it). It was a safe space, a refuge from the madness outside, but in both cases something seemed… off. In RE2 it’s a combination of the looming, carefully lit statue that dominates your view, and the emptiness and quiet of a seemingly-abandoned police station during a massive emergency. If the police are gone, how bad must things be in this city? This is one of the things the developers nailed: atmosphere.

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Atmosphere is one of those nebulous things that is really the result of several elements coming together, though. The original games felt atmospheric in their own ways, but the improvement in graphics allowed the team to make a key change to this iteration: it is dark. Like, almost pitch black where your flashlight isn’t shining. Where the original games used camera angles to obscure your vision and create anxiety about what might be in each new room, this game uses darkness, and it’s super effective. Sound is key in both games, because a common strategy is to pause when you enter a new area, listening for a telltale zombie moan or licker click. It made for an exhilarating back and forth, where one minute you’re lulled by the security of a cleared room, only to exit into an unknown and potentially deadly situation.

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But, really, what do you know about anxiety in the first half of the game? You certainly feel like an old, grizzled veteran of it… until you meet Mr. X, when a new kind of terror promises to haunt you at every turn. In the original game you’re treated to a cutscene that shows some kind of pod dropped through the roof of the station – a hint of something menacing to come. There is no such hint in this version, which I think is great because even though I was very familiar with the old game I was still caught off-guard when he popped up in this one.

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He was a son of a bitch in the old game, but in this version he is absolutely overbearing. Where you used to be able to duck into a safe room and have him leave you alone for a while, in this one he is relentless in his pursuit. The sound of his heavy stomps triggers a sense of panic, and the use of context-specific controller vibration dependent on his distance from you is a reminder of how effective (and neglected) that technology is. The pulsing music that follows him contributes to the fear, and it reminded me of the use of harsh, grinding music in the old horror movie The Entity, where the music is used as a way to indicate when the invisible spirit is ‘on-screen.’ More impressively, I think, they managed to give Mr. X a personality using posture, head movement, and gestures, without him ever uttering a word, which is something that I don’t think the old game accomplished nearly as well. I’m being too clinical in my description, I think, but it’s difficult to capture his presence without shifting into narrative prose. If I recommend this game to someone who hasn’t heard about it, it will be in part because I’ll want to hear about their response to Mr. X.

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A great throwback to a similar scene in the original game

The game also gets a lot of the little things right. One of my favorite little things about the older games was the brief notes and journal entries you’d find. You didn’t need to read them to understand the main story, but they made the world so much more real and rich. In this iteration, when I came across Chief Irons’ notes on his taxidermy subjects, I excitedly flipped through each macabre page. And then I came across this:

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The tone was definitely different than the previous pages, and the measurements didn’t seem to make sense. It was pretty clear that he was talking about a woman, but… did he kill her? It says “captured,” but also “forever.” Did he kill a woman and stuff her, like an animal? I didn’t think much about it beyond that, but later, when I was playing as Sherry and sneaking through Irons’ secret office, I found answers.

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It’s the little things. Another one: the gore. Of course a game where you’re killing zombies will have some gore, but there were a few particularly noteworthy scenes where they really turned it up a notch. I’ll just let the screenshots speak for themselves.

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After beating the game with both characters and thus getting the “true” ending, I still felt like I wasn’t quite done with it, so I decided to get the platinum trophy, which would require at least a few more playthroughs. On one such playthrough I decided to try Claire’s alternate noir costume. The game flashed a prompt asking me if I wanted to use the included filter, but I honestly didn’t read it or think about what that meant. I was happily surprised, then, to see that the game was in black and white once I was dropped into the world.

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Having studied film in grad school, I was a little embarrassed to realize only as I made my way through the game just how noir it was the entire time, even without the filter. Gumshoe with a heart of gold, femme fatale, rainy urban setting, symbolic use of light and shadow, Mr. X’s trench coat and fedora (plus the fedoras strewn all over the police station)… how did it take me so long to see it? It’s something I’ll probably write more about later, but things like that are really exciting to me, because if we read video games as texts with ‘authors,’ like we do with film, we have a Japanese team making a game set in the west and very clearly influenced by western texts (themselves influenced by German texts). And how does a Japanese player read it? Super fascinating stuff.

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Okay, I have a million more things I could gush about (performances, story tweaks, enemies, gameplay, etc.) but I’ve already spent more time than I should have writing this, and there is something that really stood out to me but that I haven’t seen anyone talking about on social media or in the press. I mentioned the lighting earlier, and while that’s great on its own, in some cases it highlights how excellent the textures in this game are. The textures in Resident Evil 7 were great, but Capcom really seems to be mastering the RE Engine.

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Okay, these screenshots aren’t big enough to do them justice, but check out the shot of Leon in his alternate Arklay Sheriff’s costume. There’s lots of impressive stuff here, like the fact that everything on his uniform bobs and sways realistically with his movement, but let’s just focus on textures. The braided belt actually looks braided, not like a pattern overlayed on a flat surface. His handcuffs have a realistic metallic gleam. His pants are a heavier weave fabric than his shirt. You can see that the display and buttons on his walkie-talkie are actually depressed and the light creates appropriate shadow on them. Most impressively, I think, are the textures of the different leathers on his belt segments. Look at the walkie-talkie holster closely. You can not only see a realistic imperfection on the surface, a bubbling where the leather may be separating, but it too casts a very minor shadow of its own. Crazy.

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Look at Leon’s uniform in this next shot. You can not only see that his shoulder pad is a different material than his shirt, but it’s saturated from the rain that he just came in from in a different way, too, and in a different way than his neck, which is shiny as opposed to soaked. You can also see the stitching at the seam of his shirt in great detail. Ada’s dress is another feat, as it looks like real, slightly bunched (there must be a word for that) fabric, even when she moves.

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You can see several textures in this shot of Claire, too, like the lighter leather of her knife sheath, the metal of the gun, the fabric of her fannie pack, and more, but what I really want to draw attention to is the design sewn into the back of her vest. It might be a little difficult to make out because I made this image smaller (to save muh tables), but you can see that it truly looks sewn in, as the stitching is very detailed, follows realistic patterns, and actually casts a shadow as if it were really imprinted on the vest. Plus you can see the little wrinkle/bunching of fabric just below the pattern, which is also realistic, because stitchwork like that is often more stiff than the surrounding fabric, so it doesn’t bend as easily as that same fabric.

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I could talk extensively about William Birkin’s mutated design, but I just wanted to specifically draw attention to the way the bones in his ribs protrude from his side (it looks cooler in motion) and his main eye (below). His eyes are especially impressive, because they look realistically gelatinous, including the ability for us to see through the cornea when it’s angled to the side. These are things that developers could only sort of achieve in cutscenes in the past, but now this is all in real time.

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Lastly, just check out this zombie. The most basic and common of enemies. The filminess of the eyes, the gloss of the teeth, the hair matted with filth, the wounds… the level of detail and the ability of this engine to render even the most mundane of enemies as interesting and exciting to look at just blows me away.

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So, yeah, I don’t have an elegant conclusion to this unwieldy beast of a blog, so I’ll just end by saying that this is one of my favorite games of all time. I loved the original, but Capcom improved on and added to virtually everything that made that game so great. It makes me so happy to see the near-universal love and praise the game’s been getting, so I hope when the end of the year does come it gets the accolades it deserves. And as much as everyone seemed to hate Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, I really liked it, so I would be so beyond excited if they brought the same level of refinement and innovation to remaking that entry next (can you imagine if Nemesis could break through almost any barrier!?). But, hey, I’ll be happy with a Resident Evil 8 announcement at E3 2019, too.

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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a Perfect Flashback

Oh, Ace Combat. Where do I even begin with you? I played Ace Combat 2 and 3 around the time of their release, but I wasn’t all that enamored with them. I mean, they were (like many 3D games from the mid-late 90s) pretty ugly.

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Source: https://www.mobygames.com/game/playstation/ace-combat-2/screenshots/gameShotId,218892/

But the PlayStation 2 was the first console I bought entirely with my own money, and as a teenager with disposable income, I was snatching up lots of different kinds of games. Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies was one of them, and I very quickly became addicted to its gorgeous graphics and intuitive controls. Now, if I love a game and don’t want to stop playing it I will try and get the platinum trophy for it because it gives me a great excuse to keep playing. With no achievement system in place for the PS2, I played AC4 until I had shot down every special (“named”) enemy, unlocked every plane, skin, and weapon, and S ranked every single map on all difficulties. I really loved that game a lot, and its sequel, The Unsung War, wasn’t bad either. But, as I mention in my Top 25 entry for AC4, I was “disappointed with every successor that attempted to revolutionize the flight mechanics or introduce outrageous enemies. Maybe someday they’ll return to their roots.”

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Well, Joey-from-a-few-years-ago, hold on to your proverbial butt, because Namco must have heard the prayers of fans like me. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a gloriously crafted throwback to AC4 and AC5. One of the things I very much disliked about some of the later AC games was the way the aircraft controlled. I don’t just mean the control scheme, because that can be adapted to. In AC4 and 5, your plane controlled as if it were on an invisible plank, and you tilted that plank to make the plane roll, pitch, yaw, etc. I call it intuitive because when you consider the fact that the flaps that control movement are on the rear of the plane, and they determine which way the front of the plane points, it seems like a concerted effort, one that moves the whole plane, like a plank.

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In some of the later AC games, instead of being on an invisible plank, it was more like your plane was being drawn by a string. Moving your joystick moved the tip of the plane, not a central axis that ran through the aircraft, the same way that the ships in the Star Wars Battlefront and Rogue Squadron games handle. It makes a little more sense for space combat (though I do still wish those games allowed for both approaches), but for a realistic jet it just seems unrealistic and cartoonish.

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The first thing I noticed about AC7 was that it had returned to the control style of old, and I immediately knew how to masterfully control my plane. It felt like trying on an old t-shirt that you feel like you must have outgrown, only to realize it fits perfectly. The game also mirrors a lot of AC4 and 5’s narrative, mission types, and style, but has a healthy mix of new to go with the old so it doesn’t just feel like a complete rehash. There are the familiar narrow passages to fly in, giant airships to take down, and low canyons to stealth through, but also new drones, weather effects, and a messy sandstorm to navigate.

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As for the graphics, which were a big draw for me back in the early PS2 days, they look a lot better in motion than in some of the screenshots I’m posting here. I was worried when I saw early screens of the game, because it didn’t look as photo-realistic as I was hoping. Once you’re moving, though, almost everything looks great. Some of the ground assets are a little muddy/blurry if you happen to crash and get a good look at them, but for the most part I was very happy with the visuals. There is one specific graphical choice I wanted to talk about, though, because I was thinking a lot about it while I was playing, then I saw it sort of come up on social media. Someone tweeted that the dog in the cutscene below, which they called dog.png, was the funniest part of the game. People jumped in the comments and joked about how lazy the developers were for using pictures instead of ‘real’ graphics.

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The thing is, they do it a lot. Like, in most cutscenes. No one seems to notice, though, and I even found myself having a hard time determining what was real and what was fabricated in some scenes. The shot below, for example: the characters are models, but I feel pretty certain that the fencing, barbed wired, and prison background are real photos.

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A more obvious one, and one that I recognized and knew I could verify, is the shot below. There’s a scene in the game where they show and describe a junkyard for planes, out in the desert. There is a real place like this, though, called the “Boneyard,” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Arizona.

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I found the site on Google Maps and located the exact area that they pulled from (above). You can see that they copied and pasted extra planes from other parts of the site, and they added some B2 bombers that would almost certainly not be in a junkyard yet, but overall it’s obvious that they used a real photo instead of creating a scene from scratch. I made a gif of the two, to show the similarities and differences.

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So the dog.png thing is funny, sure, but I think the developers should be applauded for trying to seamlessly mix reality and fiction and (mostly) pulling it off. It’s not a graphical style that would work for all games, but for a military game it brings a touch of reality to a fictional world, deepening immersion and grounding the narrative a bit more.

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The final thing I want to touch on is a bit critical. The opening cutscene sets up a story of the granddaughter of a pilot from one of the wars from the old games. With her grandpa and his friends, she uses scraps from the planes in that boneyard to make a barely flyable jet that she uses to see the sky as her grandpa once did. She is shot down by a military fighter who mistakes her for the enemy, though, because she unknowingly makes her maiden flight just as a new war is breaking out. She manages to control her crash and survives, albeit with a serious leg injury, and is thrown in a military prison.

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As all of this was playing out, I was thinking of how cool it was as a premise. If veteran players of the series are the grandpa, once flying and fighting in the wars of the old games, putting us in the shoes of his granddaughter who has to learn to fly and fight new aircraft in a new war is genius. We feel like we have something to prove. Other pilots are going to disregard us as just an amateur who couldn’t even evade the fighter that shot us down. But I quickly realized that the granddaughter is not the main character. We are another faceless, nameless character, meant to allow us to project ourselves on. I’m not complaining about that too much, because it is still a little thrilling when the other pilots talk about how awesome you are. But I can’t help but think that the old pilot’s granddaughter was set up to be a really great protagonist, and her story is kind of wasted as a side story. That aside, I loved this game a ton, and if it weren’t for the trophies that require online play I would probably try for the platinum. Either way, I see myself logging lots more flight hours in the future.

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