This article was originally published on the blog Everything that sucks! And some things that don't!
I remember when I bought my first PS2. I was young and impressionable back then (at the age of 23...) and I scoured the internet, looking for great games that had eluded me all this years and could now finally be played by me. My first few purchases were Resident Evil 4 (to this day, probably my favorite game ever), God of War (2005) and God of War II (both pretty great) and Spartan: Total Warrior (which I never finished). All well and good, but I needed some RPGs and people always lauded the PS2 as their generation's go-to console for RPGs. I discovered Wild Arms and Kingdom Hearts and was finally able to get my hands on Summoner 2 after playing its predecessor on PC years before and all was good. But then I heard of Dark Cloud 2 (that's Dark Chronicle in Europe) and it sounded fantastic. Like one of them 3D Zelda games (which I'm incidentally not that big a fan of) with more RPG elements and city building on top. The meta-score was pretty good, too, so I acquired it. I mean, what could go wrong?
As it turns out, I should have listened to that one guy on Gamespot, who wrote a mildly positive review to Dark Cloud 2, saying "Well, Dark Cloud might not have had a story, but at least it didn't have a story as bad as Dark Cloud 2". While mechanically sound (and graphically still pretty impressive for a game that is 16 years old), Dark Cloud 2 might be one of the most inane games I have ever had the displeasure to play. Yes, it plays well, it's pretty rewarding and there's always something to do. And if that's enough for you, then go for it. But if you're like me and want all of those things you do over the course of a game to amount to something, then stay the hell away from this game. Protagonists Max and Monica might very well be the worst non-characters I have ever witnessed in a game and the fact that they are personally embroiled in all of the "storythread" (and I use that term very lightly) makes it all the more disheartening, seeing them react to great tragedies and unforeseeable twists as if they had just walked out of their own frontal lobotomy. Developer Level-5 are pretty good at overblown melodrama, but they somehow waste it all on side-characters that appear in and disappear from the story within ten minutes. There are a lot of possibly touching and even halfway well-written arcs on the sideline of the game, but they squander all of the potential on the grand, central arc of the game and that just shouldn't be. Seriously, when looking back at the game, looking at characters like Gaspard or Griffon (incidentally the two main badguys of the game) and going "Hey, they were interesting and well written and stuff, why couldn't I have played them instead of those two losers", then something went really, really wrong. So there you have it, a drive-by-review of Dark Cloud 2 on the side. Oh, and while we're at it, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch seems to be equally as bad. I can't say for sure, because I only played it for like eight to ten hours and then I was so incredibly annoyed by Oliver's constant brainless "Well jeepers, Mr. Drippy", that I turned it off and never turned it back on again. I have a theory... no, really two theories. Either the complete writing staff of Level-5 is too stupid to tie their own shoelaces, or they know that I exist, they know what I like and they dedicated their lives to completely frustrating the hell out of me.
Well, joke's on you, dear writing staff, because I really, really like Rogue Galaxy.
But I'm not exactly sure why I do. See, on a superficial level, it shares quite a lot of problems with Dark Cloud 2. The main story is a glowing example in absolute ineptitude while most of the sidestories think themselve to be at least on a shakespearean niveau. High drama comes and goes as it pleases, the whole tone of the game is a hot mess and on top of that, it's mostly an unashamed Star Wars ripoff (seriously, it's like playing an anime-mod to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). The giant war that is supposed to go on in this galaxy happens mostly offscreen and whenever it tries to peek into the mainplot, it does so in an incredibly shoddy fashion. And the companion storylines... oh God, the companion storylines... It's not like in Dragon Age: Origins or so, where you have to become acquainted with your companions and have them like you enough to open up to you, because there's no such mechanism in Rogue Galaxy. No, Level-5 operate under the assumption that if it's good enough to be written, it's good enough to be shoved down your throat. Especially Simon's storyline is pulled off in such a balls to the wall insane fashion that I can't help but kind of admire it.
But what makes this tolerable while Dark Cloud 2 crashed and burned so badly? Interestingly enough, the main character, Jaster Rogue. It's not that he's especially deep or interesting or some such. Quite the contrary. He's just a guy with a stupid haircut and a thirst for adventure, who happens to be pretty good with a sword (at first, at least). And that's cool. If you're writing shallow characters anyway, not personally involving them in the main story is a pretty neat move, because then you don't fail as bad when it becomes apparent how very bad you are at this. No, Jaster isn't in this for any personal reasons, he just wants to have adventures and help people and do the right thing and even though that's not that much to go on, his enthusiasm (and coolest dude in the universe Zegram's constant mocking of that enthusiasm) are incredibly infectious. If I'm playing a videogame, I want to have fun. And Jaster Rogue having barrels of fun on his grand adventure across space is a perfect parallel to that. Yes, the main plot (and most of the sideplots) of the game is incredibly stupid and not that well written while we're at it, but Jaster Rogue's attitude helps me to get on board with it quite immensly.
On the other hand, it's a bit sad to say that Rogue Galaxy doesn't fare as well as Dark Cloud 2 from a gameplay perspective. The high level of random encounters, the dubious game balance and the incredibly stupid companion AI can't hold a candle to Dark Cloud 2's slick combat, with revelation charts (a level up system that is kind of comparable to that of Final Fantasy XII) for each character, weapon fusion, hunter ranks, insectron- and factory-minigames, etc. there's quite a bit of stuff to do, but it doesn't feel as fully realized as the comparable systems in Dark Cloud 2. Strangely enough, the world also feels smaller. And did I mention that Jaster Rogue has a pretty stupid haircut? But that's beside the point. Yeah, it'd be cooler if there was as much stuff in this as there was in Dark Cloud 2, but there is enough fun to be had here and as said, I'll take a smaller game that gets me on board with the story over a bloated mess that trips over its own shoestrings at the first hurdle any day of the week.
So even though Rogue Galaxy is a stupid, stupid game and given my other experiences with Level-5's oeuvre, I really shouldn't like that thing that much, I think it's one of the best RPGs of the PS2-era and if you haven't played it yet, you really should. It's out for PS4 now and I recently re-bought it for like 4€ or so. And that's a price where you can deffinitely do no wrong (even though the conversion is a bit dodgy).
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This article was originally published on the blog Everything that sucks! And some things that don't!
I said I'd do something like that once I've finished Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (Golden to be precisely) once again and I did so (already at the end of last year, but well, what can you do). So here we go, me gushing about a JRPG for an hour or so. Have fun.
My history with the Shin Megami Tensei franchise is a long and turbulent one. I discovered the SNES original (yes, I know, there were a few MegaTen-games on the NES, but they don't have a Shin in their title) somewhere around 2002 or so, when I dabbled into SNES emulation and stuff and liked it quite a bit. I never finished it, because back then, without regular access to an internet connection, I found myself lost quite a bit and couldn't figure out how to progress about halfway through, but... It had left an impression on me.
The first SMT game that I actually DID finish was Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne on the PS2, which to this day remains one of my favorite games of that console generation. It was harsh, it was brutal, but most of all it was fun, well written and covered interesting themes. Themes that are pretty prevalent throughout the whole SMT-franchise, as I noticed once I played a few more games in the series, but interesting themes nonetheless. Since then, just for reference, I played and beat Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army, Revelations: Persona, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, Persona 5 and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey and played, albeit not to completion yet, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon, Persona Q: Shadow Of The Labyrinth and (the one I'm investing most of my gaming time at the moment in) Shin Megami Tensei IV. Quite a few, but when I look at all of the other entries in that franchise, I've still got more than enough to chew through in the near future. Which is good. Because besides the largely underappreciated Wild Arms-series, SMT might be not only my favorite JRPG-franchise, but my favorite video game series in general.
But enough about that, we're here to talk about Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, aren't we? A game about strange reality TV shows, talking bears, homework and serial killings. Sounds weird, doesn't it? Well, (attention, cultural insensibility incoming) what did you expect? It's Japanese. And not only is it Japanese in origin, it is also very Japanese in its style. Which isn't something I'm usually that keen on, but Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 manages to be so incredibly convincing, so sincere, so unabashedly honest in its depiction of Japanese culture (and rings so incredibly true in its most poignant moments even to people who are pretty much grounded in western culture) that I can't help but admire it.
Yes, once you look past the gaudy packaging, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 reveals a very intimate, a very human story about accepting who you really are, prevailing against uncertainty and preconceptions and finding your place in society. It might be a bit naive at times, but that doesn't change the fact that it might include the most touching moments I have witnessed in a videogame, period. The game itself is also pretty good.
For me personally, the gameplay has suffered a tiny bit now, because in between my first and second playthrough of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, I played Persona 5 to completion and... yeah, it might be a bit unfair to compare the two games, because of course Persona 5 took more than a few cues from its predecessor and refined that games rough edges, but since I have played a very similar game with an incredibly intuitive button layout, baton passes, automatic weakness exploits, a very neat stealth system and friggin' guns, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 feels slightly outdated in the gameplay department. It is still head and shoulders above the usual JRPG-fare, but that's to be expected, isn't it?
I really like the turn-press-system in general and although I find the original incarnation a bit better than the one that has been used in the Persona games since the third one, I'm also pretty cool with how it works here. For the uninitiated: In the original turn-press-system as used in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, your party and the enemies have their own turns. At the beginning of each of your turns, you get as many actions as you have active characters. Every action uses up one of those turns. However, if you manage to exploit an enemies weakness or land a critical hit, that action only costs half an action point. Same applies to your enemies, should they exploit your weaknesses. However missing an enemy or attacking with an element enemies are immune to or reflect costs more than one AP. In the Persona games, exploiting an enemy weakness or landing a critical hit allows the character who did so to take an immediate follow up action and also knocks down the affected enemy. Should all enemies be down at the same time, you're able to perform an All-out-attack which hits all of the enemies for massive damage. It's a pretty elegant system, one that puts emphasis on managing your parties capabilities at dealing out various forms of elemental damage while managing your own weaknesses and resistances accordingly. It's also quite fast and although outdated from a technical viewpoint, the cartoony graphical style and animation is still rather pleasant to look at.
But of course, combat isn't the only thing the game has to offer. Over the course of the game, you'll shape your main character's daily routine over the period of about a year. He'll be going to school most of the time, of course, but afternoon and evening activities are up to you (most of the time). There's a variety of things you can do, like working part time jobs, studying, eating at the local diner, etc. pp. But the most important pastime is cultivating so called Social Links you have with your party members or other people around town. By spending time with those characters, you unlock new skills for your party and/or new possible Persona fusions (and EXP-boosts for Personas of arcana that match your social links... it's all a bit convoluted to explain in a few sentences). And on top of that, all of those social link events are incredibly well written and make pretty much all of the characters grow on you before you know it (even Ai). Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 has this classically addicting "Just one more day"-quality, where you just want to see what happens during the next ingame-day. And the next one. And the one after that. And then it's three o'clock in the morning and you don't know where all of the time went, but it was oh so worth it.
Also Persona fusion. Remember Pokémon? It's like that, but more intricate. You get new Personas from the so-called "Shuffle time" event, that randomly pops up after battles and you can equip those on your main character to change his statistics, elemental affinities and combat skills. And if you outgrew your current Persona (they can level up, but after a while, they have learned everything they could learn and won't be getting siginificantly stronger anymore), you can take two or three (or perhaps up to twelve, if you want to get serious about this) of your Personas, bring them to the (very Twin Peaks-ish) Velvet Room and fuse them into a new Persona that inherits some of the skills that the former ones possessed. It's a great system, because each and every new Persona you acquire, even if it is severely underleveled, can be made into something cool, two or three fusions down the line.
So perfect game then? Well, no. But then again, what is? It is however constantly struggling for the throne of my list of favorite video games with Resident Evil 4 and Planescape: Torment, because of its great and well-written story, its fun gameplay, its absolutely stellar cast of characters (Kanji Tatsumi might be one of the greatest characters in all of video game history... and that's especially cool due to the fact how easily he could have been reduced to a one-note stock character), its passion for detail and its overall sense of... I don't know, relatability. The struggles and trepidations the characters face feel real and hit home with a purposefulness that I would have never expected from a game that is so very, very Japanese.
Alas, where there is light, there is also shadow. As said, gameplaywise Persona 5 does everything Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 does but a tiny bit better. The music might not be everyone's cup of tea, it was a bit of a culture shock for me in the beginning, but I learned to cope with it. The graphics are rather outdated by today's standards, but the style still works, although every time the game changes between ingame-graphics and animated cutscenes, the differing proportions of the characters are a bit jarring. Also why are there no subtitles during the cutscenes? I'm using my PS Vita on the go most of the time and I hardly ever use headphones, because while travelling with public transportation, it's too much of a hassle for me to fumble them into and out of my ears each time I have a few minutes to play, so I mostly have the volume turned all the way down. And not having subtitles in such a situation is rather inconvenient. Also some of the things you have to do to get on the path to the true ending are rather... opaque. Without wanting to spoil anything, there's one conversation about two thirds through the game where you have to answer perfectly in order to progress onward on the true ending part and... It doesn't feel like it. Most of the answers you have to pick don't further the conversation in a meaningful way and once it ends, you're none the wiser than before. But the flag has been set and you can proceed now. Well done. Whatever you did.
But my biggest problem - and that might be considered a slight spoiler, but I don't think it'll hamper your enjoyment of the game if you know about this - is one with the writing. As said, the story is great, the cast stellar, the themes transcendent and the writing in general very, very strong. There's some slight "missteps" in how most of the teachers in the game tend to hold their lectures, but I don't know, maybe that's just a German thing, we like to keep our distance and be professional and stuff. Or at least that's what I'm told from time to time. Then again, it's a videogame, nobody expected realistic school lessons, did they? On the other hand, there's Hanako and Ms. Kashiwagi. I find it extremely baffling that in a game that is all about accepting who you really are and stuff, a game that produced Kanji Tatsumi, who could have been oh so cringeworthy but turned out incredible, a game that does so well in almost every other regard decided to include two "laughing stocks" without any redeeming qualities. The writers displayed so much tact throughout the game, but there, they were just like "Look, that one's fat and that one's promiscuous, har-dy-har-dy-har...". Why? I don't know. Perhaps that's also a Japanese thing.
*sigh* I didn't really want to end on a sour note, because as said, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is an incredible game and even though perhaps not my favorite of all time (most of the time), it is still one of the greatest videogames ever made and everybody who is at least the slightest bit into JRPGs (or just into storydriven videogames in general) owes it to themself to try out Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, preferrably the Golden-version, but (although I can't really judge that since I haven't played it) the original one should be fine, too.
And yes, were Carl Jung still alive, I'm pretty sure he'd be proud of this game. I'll just leave that here.
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