Save Point: Discussing My Dissertation

When I started this site, one of my intentions was to use it as a place to write notes and short blurbs about my dissertation as I researched and worked on it. I did post a thing or two about some book notes, but I haven’t really done much else. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, I think, is that I just didn’t feel very confident about my topic – for a while, at least. I am in a fairly traditional English department, so other than our one digital rhetoric professor, there isn’t much of a place for a dissertation that is essentially a video games studies project. The process of writing my prospectus was basically filled with anxiety and stress about convincing my committee that this project had the potential to be important and relevant. I was continually hearing dissenting voices in my head. “But why does this thing matter? What are you actually bringing to the field? Do you really know enough to write this?” But after I wrote my prospectus and began converting it into a presentation, I found my confidence again. Mostly. I won’t sit here and say there aren’t still doubts, but in the process of condensing my prospectus and thinking of how to verbally pitch it, I ended up convincing myself that it was as good as I had originally thought when I came up with the idea.

So, having said all that, I am going to start posting blogs about my work. The second of the previously mentioned reasons for not doing so earlier is that I was nervous about people taking my ideas. After much reflection, I have come to conclude: who gives a shit. I’m doing this work with the intent to share it anyway, and I don’t love academia’s habit of hoarding and gating off knowledge to boot. What scenario is that little anxiety-corner of my brain imagining? That someone will see my blogs and publish their own version of my dissertation? I mean, maybe, but that seems pretty unlikely, especially given that I have lots of material that I’m not posting. What is more likely, I think, is that someone might end up seeing this and thinking “hey, that’s kind of like my work,” and if I’m lucky, they’ll reach out and I’ll have a new contact/friend to chat about video games and research with.

Future posts will probably be a lot more specific. I don’t have an exact plan for what I’ll be sharing. Sometimes it will be fully formed thoughts, sometimes it will be aimless rambles, sometimes it will just be interesting tidbits (to me) that I may or may not even end up using for anything. With that, I suppose I should say a little about what my project actually is. The working title of my dissertation is Soft Power-Up: Japanese Games as Cultural and Rhetorical Exports. The “soft power” in the play on words in the first part of the title is kind of a key component of the project. Soft power is a term that essentially describes a nation’s capacity to influence other nations with culture, rather than traditional forms of global power, like military might and economics. There have been lots of studies on Japan’s use of soft power to fill the gap left by its loss in economic superpower status in the 1980s. Most of these studies focus on widely known things like sushi, karaoke, tea ceremonies, anime, manga, and more. Studies on the use of video games as a part of this national strategy seem surprisingly lacking. The most recent edition of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture has chapters on music, education, food, anime, and much, much more, but there is not a single chapter on video games. This edition was published in 2009, which is far too recent for any excuses of “well video games weren’t big yet.” Video games are and have been huge exports for Japan since the 1980s, to the point of being the only cultural product that Japan exports more than it imports.

So it seems like a no-brainer to me to study this. I was recently pointed toward Rachael Hutchinson’s book Japanese Culture Through Video Games, published just last year (after I had stopped research for my prospectus), which seems to cover much of what I intend to look at in my work. I have yet to read it, because academic texts are vastly overpriced and I am a poor grad student, but I’ll hopefully find a cheap copy soon. I feel pretty confident that my approach will be different enough that I won’t be treading the same ground, but I can’t deny I was a little sad to see that someone had (at least partially) beat me to print. On the other hand, I was so excited and felt weirdly vindicated (to the doubting voices in my head, anyway) to see that a very close approximation of my idea was not only taken seriously by another scholar, but published by a major press as well.

One thing that differentiates my project from Hutchinson’s (I think) is our choice of case studies. Of all the games noted in her introduction and table of contents, I don’t see any mention of the Persona, Yakuza, or Resident Evil series, or Death Stranding, and these are the games that I’ll be looking closely at. She does have a whole chapter on absentee parents which I am interested to read, because that is one of the many aspects of Japanese culture I see reflected in a metric crap ton of Japanese games and was planning on talking about in my project. I chose the Persona and Yakuza series because they both take place in real Japan, often depicting real, specific locations that exist today. So they offer insight into how the developers chose to depict their culture in explicit terms. On the other hand, there are notable Japanese games that are set in America or other Western settings, like the Resident Evil games and Death Stranding. I want to use these games to show that, regardless of setting, there are a whole host of aspects of Japanese culture that end up showing through in these games (in implicit terms). When consideration of these two types of games are combined, I hope to show what Japanese games are “saying” about Japan to the Western world, how that message has changed over time, and why it all matters.

Okay, I should shut up. As usual, I am mostly writing these for myself, to work out and solidify ideas, and just start writing things out that might be useful later. However, I’m also sharing this for anyone that’s interested in Japanese games, is or will be writing a dissertation, or is in any of the many fields related to games studies. If you want to reach out, please do. I’d be happy to answer any questions or share/swap sources. Thanks for reading, and look forward to more posts like this. Or don’t, I guess. That’s cool, too. You do you.

Thievie Wonders: My New Phantom Thieves Mask Collection

I am a little over 200 hours into Persona 5 Royal at the moment and I’ve detailed my love of the core game and the series in previous posts. I have yet to play the new post-original-endgame content yet, so maybe I’ll cover that in the future, but I just made a purchase that is incredibly timely and relevant. As those very astute readers may have guessed by looking at the title of this blog or the featured picture, I recently bought replicas of every Phantom Thief mask (except Morgana, because his mask is, uh… kinda his face) and I am so excited about it that I wanted to share.

Remember Erin, my tattoo artist? She is in the process of moving and doesn’t have space for these masks so she wanted “[her] babies going somewhere they will be APPRECIATED.” Her words, not mine, but she is 100% correct. I appreciate them so, so much. She originally purchased them from an artist who makes movie and video game prop replicas, DetravoidConcept. So today I woke up, wiped them down with a diaper (not really, ew, gross), and took a bunch of pictures that I’d like to share, along with some thoughts on the characters that they are worn by. Let me just note that I am close to the furthest thing from a photographer, but I tried my best, okay? *nervously sweating emoji*

Joker – Protagonist: “I’ve leveled up.”

Joker doesn’t have many memorable quotes because, well, he’s mostly a silent protagonist. This, combined with the ability for the player to select many of his dialogue choices, makes him a mostly blank canvas for the player to project themselves onto. Which means, Joker is me. So I think he’s a pretty cool guy. Sometimes. Usually. Maybe. On good days.

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Panther – Ann Takamaki: “A beautiful rose has thorns!”

Oh, Ann. So beautiful. So whippy. Ann looks like a bubbly, preppy, popular girl cliché, but it’s not long before you realize that she is an outcast much like you and the many friends you will meet on your journey. Ann is very pretty, yes, but I think it’s the mix of tenacity and hope that she exudes that I like most. A beautiful rose has thorns, indeed. I like making her my hard hitting magic user, because there’s something about her calling forth a shadow and absolutely incinerating enemies in torrential flames that just gets me every time.

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Skull – Ryuji Sakamoto: “For real!?”

Ryuji is the comic relief, yes, so he’s always good for a laugh – at him or with him. He’s hotheaded and a little light in the brains department, so when he attempts to spar with someone like Morgana or Ann, hilarity ensues every time. But you know what? He’s also always in your corner. Always. And sometimes you want nothing more than a hotheaded numbskull of a friend to have your back. That’s Ryuji. Cue sound clip: “What did you say!?”

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Fox – Yusuke Kitagawa: “I do not paint for the sake of others’ comprehension.”

Okay, so I know I painted Ryuji out to be the oafish comic relief, but Yusuke is also a bit daft. I suppose his dullness is more due to social ineptitude, because he seems to be a stellar student, but he sure is dense at times. I was not the biggest Yusuke fan, at first. Can you blame me? Our introduction to him is his stalking of Ann, and he is generally a vain, oblivious tool… for a while. He learns and reflects a lot over the course of the story, though, and even if he’s maybe not the best friend you could ask for by the end, at least he’s always good for a funny, all-too-serious comment about painting Ann in the nude.

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Queen – Makoto Niijima: “Fists of justice!”

I had to go with that quote from Queen because I get it stuck in my head all the damn time. I’ll be walking to the kitchen and pretend like I’m going to punch my refrigerator end-over-end and faux scream that quote. I’ll be playing with Bella, my cat, and yell “fists of justice!” as I slow-motion punch her in the stomach (and she grabs my hand with her claws and punishes me for my foolishness). It’s such a well delivered line, but I love that it comes from the typically prim and proper Ms. Student Body President. In my second playthrough, after seeing Makoto’s full story and getting to know her character beyond her initial pushy, aggressive profiling of us, I found her shadow awakening to be one of the most emotionally resonant. If anyone needed to suddenly sprout spiked shoulder pads and a badass, other-worldly motorcycle, it was Makoto Niijima.

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Oracle – Futaba Sakura: “Welp, ain’t no time like the present! Come on, let’s go!”

Oh, Futaba. Futaba, Futaba, Futaba. She has to be one of my favorite characters in all of gaming at this point. I was already with Ann by the time I got to Futaba in my first playthrough, but as soon as she started slinging zingers at Ryuji, or Inari, or anyone else who annoyed her, I’d decided to romance her in my second playthrough. It felt too weird for me, personally, so I don’t think I have that kind of affection for her, but her story is so tragic and her personality is so unique and goofy that I can’t help but feel some kind of intense love for her. This playthrough of Persona 5 Royal is my fourth time playing through the core P5 story, and I straight up cried again when I was doing her palace and the story that ensues. I would die for Futaba, man.

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Noir – Haru Okumura: “If I act with resolve and believe in my actions, I know I’ll be able to achieve anything.”

Haru is another character that took a while to grow on me, which I know is a sin to some, since she appears to be a huge fan favorite. She is adorably inept when you first come across her in the Metaverse, which was certainly endearing, but growing up in extreme privilege has crippled her in so many ways that it takes a while for her break through all of the shackles that bind her, emotionally, psychologically, socially… but she does, and she evolves into a strong, capable, compassionate businesswoman. And yet she retains her adorable voice and her elegant style… like a true Phantom Thief.

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Crow – Goro Akechi: “[some dumb, faux-humble thing]”

Man, fuck that guy.

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Violet – Kasumi Yoshizawa: “I love you, Joey-senpai!”

Okay, so that quote is a joke because I have yet to reach the new story content so I don’t have any fun quotes from her memorized at this point. I have interacted with her throughout the core story, though, so I already feel very good about my choice to romance her in this playthrough (though I have yet to get to that point, sad face). In her very first scene, which is surprisingly early in the game, she makes a graceful and impressive entrance, and then proceeds to gracefully impress her foot up some enemy ass. At one point early in the story, Morgana says that the Phantom Thieves are all about style, and Kasumi fits right in in that regard. I love her red, bouncy hair, I love how skilled she is, and I love that, like the rest of us, she is something of an outcast, beaten down by a system that doesn’t appreciate her. I can’t wait to get to know her better.

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And there you have it! I’ll include a few close-ups at the end, here, so you can see how good the detailing and paint jobs are. I should note that these things are very sturdy, too. Fully ready for cosplaying. I have yet to find a place to display them, but you can bet your ass they’ll be somewhere very visible, very soon. I love them. And I love the faces they were designed to cover (except Goro). And I love Persona 5 Royal, so I’m going to go play it now. Bye bye.

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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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So Much Funky Persona Goodness

I’ve shared my love for Persona 4 and Persona 5 in previous blogs, so it probably comes as little surprise that as soon as Atlus announced that Persona 3 and Persona 5 dancing games were not only coming out late in 2018, but would be offered in a limited edition bundle that included a digital version of the Persona 4 dancing game for the PS4 (for the first time), I immediately pre-ordered it. I played through P4 (Dancing All Night) and P5 (Dancing in Starlight) recently so I just wanted to jot down some thoughts because I’ve been playing a lot of games and am getting behind on writing about them.

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I played Dancing All Night first, because I had more recently played Persona 4 and it was the first of the Persona dancing games. I said in my blog about P4 that it is funnier than P5, and that humor made a welcome return in Dancing All Night. There was a surprising amount of story and dialogue in this game, and though the writing was generally less developed and punchy than it was in the core game, there were still several scenes that made me burst out laughing.

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The gameplay was pretty standard. It was simple enough to get into and appropriately challenging at times, even if sometimes there seemed like there was way too much going on at once to really see the prompts. I also find it impossible to watch the dancers while I’m playing, but thankfully they have a replay mode where you can watch a perfect version of a song. And it was a small thing, but I liked that you could dress your characters up in various outfits.

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I realized immediately that Rise’s (P4 bae) voice actor had changed, but I was happily surprised when I saw the character was now voiced by Ashly Burch, who I think is great. I was even happier with the introduction of Kanami Mashita. When I’d heard that there was a new character, I worried about how they would fit into such a fun cast with established chemistry, but Kanami totally fits right in. She’s cute, funny, and I like that she represents a totally different kind of idol than Rise. It’s too bad she wasn’t in Persona 4: Golden or I might have had a harder time deciding who to romance.

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So, overall, I loved Dancing All Night. The remixed P4 songs were great and I liked the stylish slight redesigns of the characters. Did the story drag on a little too long? Sure. But what I actually appreciated about that was that it just offered more opportunities to see the characters interact and talk, and that’s really what these games seem to be about: getting more time with your favorite characters. So this didn’t feel like a shoddy side-story, it really did feel to me like an expansion of the P4 universe that I already loved so much.

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I did wish there was more Margaret, though.

And if I loved the Persona 4 universe, I was head over heels for the world of Persona 5. The gameplay is virtually identical in Dancing All Night and Dancing in Starlight, so the thing that stood out the most to me was the graphics. P5 was a gorgeous, stylish game, but you can kind of tell it was originally developed for the PS3 when you look at the character models and environments. They’re well designed, but they’re also fairly low in detail and sharpness. It didn’t bother me at all when I played it, but as soon as Dancing in Starlight loaded up and I saw the new, crisp, beautiful versions of the P5 crew, I was (unreasonably) overjoyed.

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Not only did the characters themselves get a graphical facelift, many of the environments they dance in are 3D, high def versions of locations from the original game. They also added detailed, explorable bedrooms for each of the characters. This is all very exciting not just because it’s a prettier version of art I already liked looking at, but because of the possible implications that it has for a re-release, like Atlus did with Persona 4: Golden. In fact, not long after this game was released they announced P5R and said nothing other than the fact that we would have to wait until March to learn more. I keep seeing the weirdest rumors about what this project will be (Persona 5 Racing? Really?), but I think it’s going to be Persona 5: Ruby. Yellow was the primary thematic color of Persona 4, so when they revamped it for re-release the new subtitle was the more valuable, flashy name for its primary color. With red being P5’s primary thematic color, ruby would be the parallel if they were going for a consistent naming convention, which we see that they like because of the similar subtitles for all of the dancing games.

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Ann’s room, if you couldn’t tell

Regardless of the subtitle, my whole point was that these new character models and environments (and the ability to interact with rooms and characters in both first-person and virtual reality) make me wonder if they are recreating all of the assets for a P5 re-release in tandem, and we can look forward to an even more breathtakingly beautiful version of the game, one where we can actually explore the streets, buildings, and environments from a variety of perspectives – and maybe in VR! That is too exciting to consider.

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As with Dancing All Night, I like that you can collect a bunch of costumes for the characters, and I really liked some of the remixes of these songs. I did think the playlist was a little short, but they offer several free downloadable songs, and I went ahead and bought a live version of “Whims of Fate” (favorite track from the P5 soundtrack) and a song from P4.

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While the writing in Dancing All Night seemed a little weaker than that of its original game, I thought the writing and dialogue in Dancing in Starlight was actually a little sharper and more natural than some of P5’s. I loved that the twins played such a big role, and almost every one of  their scenes was hilarious. But in general, as with Dancing All Night, I was just so happy to have an opportunity to revisit the world and characters that I love so much from Persona 5. I’m waiting to play Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight until I finally get around to actually playing Persona 3, but all of this Persona activity, along with the remake of Atlus’s Catherine gives me such high hopes that we’ll see a new version of P5 for PlayStation 4 and Switch a lot sooner than I might have once expected.

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Making Memories with Persona 4 Golden

As I wrote previously, I absolutely loved Persona 5. I’d been interested in the series for a long time, so I was happy to be rewarded by such an excellent entry into the franchise. It was the kind of game that I just didn’t want to be done with, so I ended up beating it almost three full times in order to get the platinum trophy for it. Beyond that, I ended up buying both Persona 3 and Persona 4 for the PS2, since they were pretty cheap online, and later I bought a PlayStation Vita and Persona 4 Golden because I’d heard that it was also quite excellent. I finally got around to playing the latter recently, so I wanted to put some of my thoughts about it down in writing.

Persona 4a

I have to say, I was a bit nervous before actually sitting down to play it. Persona 5 has a lot of systems, which is probably part of the reason they take their time in teaching you those systems in the early hours of the game. Atlus does a great job with it, and before I knew it I felt like a master at the weakness/affinity-based combat system, but I worried that P4G might not be quite so refined in its tutorials, being eight years older than its sequel (the original P4, anyway). I needn’t have worried, as P4G was very much like P5 in almost every aspect, tutorials and combat included.

When I say they are similar, I really mean it. One of the games is about a young high school kid who stays with his stern (but later loving) male guardian who has a young daughter whose mother was hit and killed by a car, and you learn that you have the ability to travel to an alternate dimension and use shadows, and with the help of a colorful cast of classmates and townsfolk, you save people from that shadow dimension and kill a god. The other game is about [copy and paste that whole thing here].

Persona 4d

The two being so similar isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though interesting, the premise of the game is not at the top of the list of things I loved about either game. There are some small changes in mechanics that make P5 an arguably better game, but the combat is virtually the same in each, and I loved fighting in both of them. I usually hate games that force you to change up your skills and attacks in order to exploit enemy weaknesses (sometimes I just wanna mindlessly bash away at things, okay?), but somehow these two games turned that concept into a well-coordinated dance. I very much enjoyed sizing up each group of enemies, thinking about what abilities each of my party members had, and then figuring out who to attack with, who to buff with, etc. In most RPGs, when I win a battle I feel strong. In these games, I felt smart.

Persona 4b

More important than the combat, I think, is the cast of characters and the relationships you form with them. So much of these games centers on finding people, learning about them, and establishing a deeper bond with them. The dating in P4 is a little less engaging than it is in P5, but I still liked having it as an option. In my first playthrough I dated Yukiko. She is smart, introspective, industrious, and has that kind of elegant traditional Japanese thing going on. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to abandon my quest to win her heart when Rise came into my life, though. She is fun, flirty, ambitious, and very cute. I was in too deep with Yukiko, though, so I saved Rise for my second game. I was very close to picking Marie, too, though, and she would have definitely been my next lady if I were to play it a third time. None of them held a candle to Ann from P5, but I did like those three ladies a lot.

Persona 4f
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXK3a6vaSVI

You know who else I liked? Kanji. If there’s an area that P4 beats out P5 in, it might be humor. P4 is a very funny game, and I found myself laughing out loud several times, which is pretty uncommon for me. My typical reaction to humor in games is a chuckle or maybe a conservative “heh” or a “ha” or two strung together. Not so with P4. I found myself having to stop and just laugh at certain scenes, even on my second playthrough. Kanji was the source of much of that laughter. He and Naoto are also super interesting for how they’re used to look at issues of gender and sexuality in games. I wish Atlus had gone further with them, though, because it seems like they wanted to make Kanji gay and Naoto gender non-conforming but pulled back at the last second and had them be semi-closeted or confused rather than forsake their feelings. The point of the shadows in this game is that they represent a part of you that you repress, and in defeating them you admit that they are just as much a part of you as the “real” version. So, given that Kanji’s shadow is gay, that means that he is either gay or bi in the real world, but after defeating his shadow he continues to act like he’s totally, definitely “not like that,” which seems weird. And Naoto eventually reveals that she presents as male because of societal expectations, but even after being outed as a woman she asks that they continue to treat her as a male and still presents as male (until the epilogue, anyway). So I think they could have done a little more to make those two characters definitively different, but they were still interesting and unique characters that are not commonly found in games.

Persona 4

The art style and soundtrack are also very good, as they are in P5. I like the red/black/white theme of P5 more than the yellow/green theme in P4, but they share a lot of the same visual flare and attention to the most minute of details. This ended up being a lot more clinical than I’d intended, but sometimes it’s hard to convey why the magical cocktail of ingredients in any given game is so delicious and intoxicating. Persona 4 made me happy. At the end of P4 and P5 your new friends speak to you about leaving and there’s a kind of bittersweet thing going on, because you all revel in the good times you had but lament the fact that it’s all over and you have to leave them behind. It seems like a purposeful design choice, because as a player I was going through the same thing. I was sad to finish both of these games, even though I’d spent dozens and dozens of hours with them. I wished I could have stayed, just as my character did, but I had to move on. I console myself by reminding myself that there are three more mainline Persona games I have yet to play, so maybe I’ll do one each summer for the next few years, and by the time I’m done with them there will be a fresh, new Persona game to steal my heart.