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.

IMG_1945

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.

IMG_1923

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.

IMG_2051

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:

Love 1Love 2Love 3Love 4Love 5Love 8Love 7Love 6

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:

Love End

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.

Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190530034908

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.

IMG_2033IMG_1983

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.

Christianity 2Christianity

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.

IMG_2238

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…

Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190604230013

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.

Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190604215014

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.

Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190603065204Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190531003344

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.

Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190605013348

Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190604041216Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190601012958Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190603064336Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190605003544Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190604232705Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight_20190604220455

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?

Kingdom Hearts III

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.

KINGDOM HEARTS ???_20190217070058

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.

KINGDOM HEARTS ???_20190223194845KINGDOM HEARTS ???_20190222230533

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.

KINGDOM HEARTS ???_20190217010247KINGDOM HEARTS ???_20190222095044

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.

Far Cry?? New Dawn_20190306005753Far Cry?? New Dawn_20190307205913Far Cry?? New Dawn_20190305014544

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.

Anthem???_20190311073341Anthem???_20190318185136Anthem???_20190311021517

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?

Tom Clancy's The Division 2_20190402_235619.jpgTom Clancy's The Division?? 2_20190323005608

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.

Tom Clancy's The Division?? 2_20190323214313Tom Clancy's The Division?? 2_20190323143841

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.

PUNCHLINE_20190403042909

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.

PUNCHLINE_20190310035258

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.

PUNCHLINE_20190310003858

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.

Quistis

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.

Quistis2
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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190131150725

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.

resident_evil_ps1_2
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.

Announcement
Original Video

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128125602

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190125204210

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128110517

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190126055950

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190203221436

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190131135418RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128175821

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128143216
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:

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128041219

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128063227

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190126072908RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190125223432

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190129144019

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190129184305RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190129184101RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190129190401

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190126223136

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190127064655

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190131160119

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190205184721

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190131223114RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128130217

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128132139

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.

RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190129202039RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190128061114RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190127054548RESIDENT EVIL 2_20190205194109

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.

ace-combat-2-playstation-screenshot-starting-our-second-mission
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.”

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190120052546

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190120034757

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190121041155

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190125041956ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190121041217

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190121020727

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190120035846

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190120032338

17b

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.

Ace Combat 7 Boneyard

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190123005737ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190120055848

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190120032259

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.

ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190123214245ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190123012648ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190123005417ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190122165519ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190120034714ACE COMBAT™ 7: SKIES UNKNOWN_20190122231637

Brief Thoughts on SoulCalibur VI and Street Fighter: 30th Anniversary Collection

If you looked at my game collection, you might say “wow, you sure like fighting games!” And I would say “uh, excuse me, I don’t know you, how did you get into my house?” But after you explain that you are madly in love with me and broke into my house to steal a lock of my beard hair and my heart, I would settle down a bit and explain that, even though I have some of the newest games in the Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, SoulCalibur, King of Fighters, Dead or Alive series (and more!), I don’t actually consider myself much of a serious fighting game fan. I think I have some kind of compulsion to rekindle the years in my youth when Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat II were the absolute biggest things in gaming.

I like fighting games, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t make any real attempt to learn move sets, combos, etc. The way it usually goes, is: I see a newly released fighting game in a series that I once loved a lot; I don’t immediately buy it because I’m afraid I might not like it as much as the older one; I eventually cave and buy it; I don’t like it as much as the older one; I stop playing after a few hours.

But some of my favorite games are fighting games. I’ve spent dozens and dozens of hours playing Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha 3, SoulCalibur II, Super Smash Bros. Melee and a few others. I don’t stick with fighting games that don’t grab me, though, because there’s usually not much narrative or lore to follow to a conclusion. The Injustice games do a great job at weaving a story in with gameplay, but very few fighting games that I’ve played put that much time and effort into narrative. So, for me, if there isn’t an engaging story, there has to be something else that hooks me. Fun, accessible controls, incredible graphics, fun multiplayer, etc.

The SoulCalibur series has interesting enough lore, but the reason I got into it in the first place was how absolutely stunning the graphics in the second game were. The series became, for me, a place to see some of the best looking characters and environments on any given platform. I loved the second and third games, but despite purchasing and playing IV and V, I didn’t connect with them in the same way that I did with the other games. When I heard SoulCalibur VI was coming out I was excited by the potential for an SC game on the current generation of hardware. With graphically impressive games like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, and Red Dead Redemption 2 out there, SoulCalibur VI has the potential to be the most beautiful, detailed fighter of all time. That’s what I was thinking, anyway.

SoulCalibur VI doesn’t look bad by any stretch of the imagination. It is a pretty game. But it’s not as mind-blowing and breathtaking as I thought it would be. Look at the ground in this screenshot:

SOULCALIBUR™Ⅵ_20190119202511

The background is blurry for style, but the area of ground in focus is blurry and muddy, too. It looks like something from a last-gen game. The characters look decent, but some of the same rough details show up on their costumes:

SOULCALIBUR™Ⅵ_20190119205530

I don’t like crapping all over games, so I’m not doing this to be spiteful or suggest this is a ‘bad’ game. It could have been a limitation of the engine that they used, I don’t know. I’ve read that Bandai Namco didn’t want to make this game at some point, so I’m glad that they made it and I know I’m being a bit nitpicky, but I guess I was hoping for something a bit more cutting edge. The story mode is cool in theory, but ultimately the writing was a little stilted and it didn’t hold my interest for long. So this was one of those fighting games that I mentioned earlier, where I bought it hoping that it would be as good as the one(s) that I really loved, but I ended up giving up on it after just 7-8 hours.

SOULCALIBUR™Ⅵ_20190119203804

Similarly, I was super excited when I picked up Street Fighter: 30th Anniversary Collection, but I only ended up trying to play the original Street Fighter (yeesh, it is rough) and playing through Chun-Li’s story in Street Fighter II. I’ll probably get back to it, but with so many big titles being released early this year it’s hard to be motivated to revisit games that I’ve already played. *shrug emoji* I did appreciate the development notes and images from the different games’ productions, though. I can’t wait to dig deeper into that stuff at some point.

“Welcome… to Jurassic [World Evolution]”

I was one of the many, many kids who saw Jurassic Park in theaters back in 1993. I loved it so much, in fact, that I saw it seven times in theaters. I was obsessed. I had the toys, I wanted to be a paleontologist, and anytime my family went on a long car ride where there were trees lining the highway, I would imagine a tyrannosaurus rex bursting through the treeline. When I saw any kind of fern or remotely tropical-looking plant, I’d wish I could have a huge yard filled with them, so I could have a real jungle for my toy dinos to play in. A quarter of a century later, Jurassic World Evolution would give me that opportunity, in digital form.

Jurassic World Evolution

The bar for Jurassic Park games is not too high, to be frank. Of the games I’ve played, the SNES Jurassic Park was an okay but not great adventure game, the Sega Genesis version was beautiful but otherwise clunky and forgettable, and the Lost World games for both PlayStation and the arcade (different games, same title) were also visually appealing, and the gameplay for both was pretty decent, but ultimately neither was anything too special.

Is this why I loved Jurassic World Evolution so much? Because its predecessors shined less brightly? I don’t think so. I heard a game reviewer on a podcast say that Evolution was “a good game, but not a good Jurassic Park game.” I disagree. It’s not perfect. There could be more park options and sometimes the building tools were a wee bit wonky. But the game captures the magic of an island filled with dinosaurs in a way that no other JP game has.

Jurassic World Evolution

I think many of the earlier games shared a problem with Jurassic Park III: they forget that the dinosaurs are the stars. Sure, we all loved Drs. Sattler, Malcolm, and Grant, but we went back to the theater and we bought the toys and we wore the t-shirts because of the raptors and the t-rex and the veggiesauruses (none of whom held doctorate degrees, to my knowledge). In The Lost World, Spielberg realizes that the dinos are the real heroes, so the plot revolves largely around saving and protecting a baby t-rex and its parents. In JP III, one of the first scenes we are treated to is a showdown between a spinosaurus (Newer! Bigger! Meaner!) and our beloved t-rex, in which the spinosaurus wins easily, tossing the t-rex aside like it was nothing. We are supposed to feel a sense of fear and foreboding, the tone set by the introduction of a new villain… but I have trouble believing I was the only person that felt a little sad and kind of angry. Can you imagine if Temple of Doom had started with a younger, buffer adventurer snapping Indiana Jones’s neck and throwing him aside? You don’t kill your showpieces off to make a point.

Jurassic World Evolution

The next film in the series, Jurassic World, addresses this, as the narrative is essentially about greedy big-wigs who think a newer, bigger, flashier dinosaur is what people want to see, only to have it almost destroy their brand. Who saves the day? The t-rex and the raptors. The real stars of the series. And then Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom forgets the lesson all over again, but that’s neither here nor there. My point is that many of the games in the series make the dinosaurs out to be typical villains, meant to be dispatched without much thought. Jurassic World Evolution is probably not the Jurassic Park game that we want (that would probably be a Tomb Raider/Uncharted-like adventure through the various famous islands, right?), but it gives us the opportunity to birth, raise, and care for the stars of one of our favorite film franchises. It respects your will to have them fight, if you want, but you can also create the most dino-friendly parks possible. I think that’s why I ended up liking this game so much and playing the hell out of it.

Jurassic World Evolution

I unlocked Isla Nublar very early, and as the only island where you get infinite money and no missions to bog you down, I decided to save it for my last park. I didn’t particularly enjoy all of the missions that take place on the other islands, which are required in order to unlock all of the dinosaurs and other things, but I generally liked the challenges that some of them brought. It was rewarding to overcome a ravaging storm or treat a dino-virus before it spread. When I finished every mission and was happy with all of my parks, I set up “a kind of biological preserve,” as Hammond once said, on Isla Nublar. No guest shops, monorails, viewing platforms, or restaurants. Just five of the biggest paddocks I could make, a small support sector, and lots of dinosaurs.

Jurassic World Evolution

I gave the t-rex her own paddock, of course, and I had a pack of five raptors with their own pen.  I decided to hatch an indoraptor and give her her own space, too. The last two paddocks were filled with lots of herbivores: one pen with a few types of sauropods and smaller dinos, and another with medium, anti-social dinosaurs like sauropelta and stygimoloch. They had lots of food, water, grassland, and forest, and when I left them they were all happy and healthy. Farewell… to Jurassic Park.

Jurassic World Evolution

Jurassic World Evolution

Jurassic World Evolution

Jurassic World Evolution
One of my favorite things about the game: the dinosaurs socialize!