Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (video game)

Platform: PSP
Developer: Atlus
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: September 22nd, 2009

Can we all agree that the Playstation era was a bitchin' time for RPG's? Seems like that system had a truckload of classics in the genre. Many of them hold up pretty well to this day, despite now antiquated graphics*.

Today, I'm going to talk about one that hasn't aged gracefully; this game's the equivalent of a hundred year old man who's nothing but skin and bones kept alive through an IV drip and an oxygen mask.

The story is that you're a group of students at a local high school. In this school rumors about gaining magical powers by circling a room are apparently taken at face value, so you find yourself goaded into doing this by the class jerkoff. Shockingly, it works and each student finds themselves with a "Persona", or basically some spirit thing that gives them abilities and determines their strengths and weaknesses.

Because this is clearly not something to be overly concerned with, they then proceed to a hospital to check on a friend. Then demons invade because what the hell else were you going to use your Persona for, cooking? Clearly, this must be stopped, so off you go to find some baddies to stomp.

This PSP port is billed as a remake, but the truth is that it's really more of an upgrade. When I think remake, I think rebuilt from the ground up. When you look at screenshots of the original and this, however, it's obvious that little has really changed. The graphics are essentially the same - even the neat first person dungeon crawling view has it's early Playstation pixelation intact - the gameplay hasn't really changed - which is the real shame - and the music seems the same. That's... a lot of things left as is for a "remake".

So what has changed? The script, mostly; while I haven't played the original localization, what I've seen makes it clear the new translation is leagues ahead of it. There's less Americanization as well. Hell, they even kept Mark as a goofy white graffiti artist instead of randomly changing his race. There's an entirely separate quest line available that was never localized in the original edition. Cut scenes were apparently touched up too, switched over to more of a cel shaded look - they still look like really bad early CG animation with a new coat of paint though.

The graphics are... well, dated. The isometric view for rooms with NPC's and battle scenes look alright for their age, but the first person dungeon crawling definitely retains that old "early Playstation" look. Oh, have I mentioned the cutscenes? I really do not get why, if they were serious about the "remake" aspect, they didn't give it a facelift or redo this stuff entirely. Say what you want about Square, but if this was one of their projects the visuals would have been rebuilt from the ground up.

The gameplay is where this old game just falls apart. It's clear the developers were going for something different with this game, but clearly forgot that different doesn't necessarily mean good. Each character has different weapons and skills, all of which have attack ranges. You place your characters anywhere on a grid on your side. Neat idea, but far from practical; if a character doesn't have an enemy in range of any of his attacks, he's going to sit there like a doofus unless you waste a turn switching the positions up.

The result is a combat system that feels boring. Mix with the fact that this is one of those "two or three steps before a random encounter" games and you've got a recipe for trouble. The battle system wears out its welcome before the halfway mark. I'm usually not averse to level grinding, but games like this make the process extremely tedious.

Speaking of leveling, that's another problem. This game went with the lovely idea of having experience for each party member depend on how much damage they've done. You probably know where I'm going with this. Eventually, a party member is going to lag behind the others in level pretty significantly. This party member is usually Mark, who sucks. So they end up being little more than canon fodder for a turn or two. This is not the best leveling system I've ever encountered.

Oh, there's the phases of the moon thing, too. As you play the game, it cycles through the different phases. In theory, this is supposed to give different advantages and disadvantages depending on the phase. In practice, it does little of value. Aside from giving you a bit of a head start on negotiations with the monsters during a certain phase, it really doesn't affect the game much at all, or at least not in a way that's very apparent, making it a worthless feature.

It's not all bad though; occasionally there's a good idea hidden in the rough. In this game, you're able to contact your enemies and try to befriend them, with the rewards ranging from spell cards used to conjure up new personas to items. Each characters has different ways of interacting with monsters and not all of them will appreciate the same responses. Obviously, if you fail, there are drawbacks, but it adds an interesting wrinkle. Why not just talk your way out of a situation from time to time, right?

I also liked the fact that, depending on your choices, you can basically pick your fifth party member. Unfortunately, you can't mix and match your party with the available options - otherwise, Mark would be the first to go given his general uselessness - but the option is nice to have and was still relatively novel in RPG's back in '96. It just didn't happen very often - in the RPG's people actually played, at least - barring a notable exception or two.

A lot of other mechanics are kind of confusing, though. The game does allow you to have guided creation of personas, but manual is like an odd puzzle without a clear solution. You really don't know what will affect what and the possibility of creating fusion accidents is frustrating. There are so many variables involved with it that even the basic instructions given to you don't help much, leaving guided fusion as the preferable option.

Mechanics like this seem to come with the expectation that you were probably going to drop a twenty on a strategy guide - remember those days? - to help you grasp it. Even with free game FAQs readily available online, I still don't care for needlessly obtuse things like this. The kind of guesswork required by things like the manual fusion of this game is not the fun kind.

Sounds a bit iffy as well. The voiceovers are pretty iffy for an upgrade made about a year ago - I assume they didn't bother redubbing - and sometimes some of the music can get a bit grating. Usually video game music is fantastic and easy to listen to over and over again. This game uses some ambient scores with plenty of j-pop. Listening to a battle song over and over every time you have a random battle is much easier when there aren't vocals.

The Score: 6 out of 10

I'm afraid I can't really recommend it. I'm interested in some of the ideas put forth here, so I'll be back for the sequels, but this game doesn't really stand the test of time. Why Atlus didn't just go the full remake route, I haven't a clue, because this game has aged badly. It's very easy to find yourself bored around the halfway mark. It's probably only worth it if you're a die-hard Persona fan; otherwise it's a relic that was probably better left buried.

* Antiquated is my way of being nice. Seriously, I cannot believe the crap we used to think was stunning back in the late nineties. Back then 3D models were the new, shiny thing, so it was a big step forward, but good lord do some of those games look like ass. I suppose time's affected my opinion on this though; I'm used to the HD era, which is a stark contrast to the blockiness of early 3D modeled games. They just don't hold up like 2D sprites do, but back then it was an exciting new frontier. Ah well.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Marvel Zombies 2 (comics)

Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Sean Phillips
Collects: Marvel Zombies 2 #1-5

As with all things uber popular, Marvel Zombies eventually found itself with a sequel by the originals creative team. They teased it being kind of a "Marvel Zombies Civil War", to which I responded "oh really now? This I gotta see!" Because, you know, how do you really do that, much less follow up with a sequel? There weren't even enough zombies left by the end - somewhere around seven, I recall - for much more than a minor skirmish, much less a war.

Besides which, for all its goofy stupidity, the first series had a relatively solid conclusion; the remaining zombies took the place of Galactus in the galaxy while the remaining humans arrived back on Earth to take back their planet.

Turns out you do it by twisting things a bit. The zombies didn't really take the place of Galactus. They end up being worse than Galactus, literally devouring the universe within the space of forty years. Once they run out of food, they remember, hey, Reed Richards had a dimensional portal, so lets use that and go to a universe with fresh meat. Back on Earth, the survivors have etched out a respectable living for themselves, but of course, political strife is evident. These two things colliding spells trouble for the surviving humans.

This go around, the dark humor is toned down. The sequel isn't as darkly comic as the original was, which I'm unsure is a good thing. It's played a bit more straight this time, with even a hint of redemption for the zombies afoot. All this means that there's more of a real story here this time, but there aren't as many "moments" that stick in your mind like the first go around had.

I mentioned in my review of the first volume that I lamented the lack of different perspective on the overall zombie infection of the heroes. Kirkman wisely avoids the pitfalls this time, as we find ourselves with focus split between the survivors and the former heroes. It actually made for a better story, I think, because the last time the humans weren't much more than meat. There was no way to get attached to the two or three left barring Magneto, which was a bit of a problem.

Everything isn't a bed of roses here, though. Kirkman even tries to make the zombies a bit more likable this go around - a real problem last time - but whether he succeeds or not is debateable. He elaborates on the concept he introduced at the end of the first volume; mainly, the zombies lose their hunger the longer they go without eating. Spider-Man has noticed this too and starts to relate it to Luke Cage. Seems simple enough, right?

Here's the problem. With the hunger gone, their heads are clearer, but it was established last time that their thoughts were clear right after they ate as well. Spider-Man was the only one who felt any real remorse. So they've turned into these gigantic pricks thanks to the zombie virus, but once the hunger is gone, hey, please forgive us, right? A bit hard for me to buy; even in their most lucid moments prior they still didn't have much problem with hunting down survivors for their next meal.

Also, how would this only just happen in such a short span of time after forty years of hunting the galaxy. It seems like it's only a couple weeks at best before they get to Earth again. They even stop to snack on Ego the Living Planet along the way. But in the forty years they spent in space, they didn't realize this until just now? Even with the time spent between worlds, traveling the stars?

So, as you can tell, there are still logic problems here. Like the first miniseries, you can't think about this one too much, otherwise too many unanswered questions and plotholes crop up. This is, again, stupid fun comics. Just with a bit more of a real story this time around. I'd say it holds up around the same as the first series, maybe just a bit weaker.

I won't spoil the ending, but there is a cliffhanger at the end. One that may not even be resolved. Kirkman didn't return for a third round - there's an entirely different creative team for three on - so what he had planned for the rather obvious second sequel is a mystery. There's overall resolution to the volumes events, but if he wasn't sure he'd be coming back, Kirkman probably shouldn't have had a cliffhanger epilogue.

As for the art, Sean Phillips is back and everything I said last time applies here too. His work is still good and he does well with providing a squick factor to the dark proceedings. There isn't as much dark comedy for him to work with as in the original miniseries, but he makes due regardless. I hope to see more or his art outside of this context, though, as it's hard to judge how he'd do on a more traditional story.

The Score: 7 out of 10

I still don't get why this was such a phenomenon, but at least they turned out to be solid comics so far. How long it can hold up as legitimate stories, I'm not so sure. Even Kirkman seems to realize the joke has a shelf life, because he mixed more of the same in with something new. I guess I'll have to find out, won't I? Worth it if you just really like Marvel Zombies, even if the novelty's started wearing off.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Kick Ass (comics)

Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Kick-Ass #1-8

So, Kick-Ass. Another of Mark Millars lovely projects that feel like they were tailor made more for the silver screen than the comic page. Hell, the film adaption of this one was actually in development while the miniseries was running; for a bit there, it looked like the film might have even released before the series finished. Millars public persona may be grating as all holy hell, but it seems to work for him.

Kick-Ass tries to use a very basic concept I'm sure a lot of us have given thought to before. "What if superheroes existed in the real world?" The main character - Dave - is a comic geek with some pretty crappy luck who decides, hey, this life is pretty boring, Imma get a wetsuit and go beat the hell out of a couple of Hispanic guys. Excess foul language and ridiculous amounts of violence ensue.

Right off the bat, we've got a problem. No matter how much he brings up things like Myspace or Youtube, Millar can't get out of his old habits. It doesn't take long - by the end of the second issue, in fact - for the perceived "realism" to vacate the premises. At first, it seems like he's going to stick with it - the consequences of Dave's hubris costs him six months of his life and requires intensive therapy to recover from - but then, fresh off his crutches, Dave suits back up and goes to pick a fight. Only this time, he wins. Right after months of healing and with no training. From there it's all downhill.

Everything is over the top here, from almost every character swearing worse than a sailor - Daves dad is literally the only character not to curse every other word - to little girls no older than ten being badass ninjas who slice people to ribbons. Literally, from the first time we see Hit-Girl, we know that any sense of realism has gone straight out the goddamn window. We're in Millars domain; the comics with the most disgusting, shocking ideas he can think of to try and appeal to the lowest common denominator.

As far as unrealistic goes, I could talk about some of the dialogue - I swear whenever Dave is in a comic shop I think Millar's contracted Whedonitis - but we won't go there.

Worse still, it often seems like there's an undercurrent of racism here. Again, not shocking, given this is Millar, but still a worry. It seems like everyone Kick-Ass fights, from street toughs on down, is a minority of some kind. From hispanics to blacks to italians, everyone offed in the course of this series is of some sort of racial stereotype.

Necessary? No. But it'll sure get some attention.

Mark Millars writing tends to come back to bite him. He is, as we all know, about as subtle as an atom bomb when it comes to pretty much anything. You pretty much know which character is going to be a traitor as soon as you see him and another characters fate is blown thanks to overuse of foreshadowing plus a flashback late in the book so blatant the narration box might as well have screamed "THIS IS CHEKHOVS GUN, PAY ATTENTION".

Then, as I briefly mentioned earlier, there's the lack of adherance to the concept. I expect the violence and the cursing; Millar does it whenever he isn't writing corporate owned superheroes. But as much of a huckster as Millar tends to be, I still expected him to stick to the "vigilantes in the real world" concept, or at least make an honest effort. Sure, superpowers are kept out of it - and Millar even makes some jokes using some superhero cliches - but the book doesn't stick to anything resembling "realistic". Considering that was the line that sold me on reading it at all, that's a legitimate disappointment. I feel like Millar could have made more of an effort, or at least been a little clearer up front.

So, with all those problems, why the hell is this goddamn book so endearing? Why is Hit Girl endearing? Most everything in this book sets off every alarm bell I've got, yet I still somehow enjoyed it. This should be a textbook case of "EWW, EWW, BURN IT, BURN IT!" Yet, despite this undeniable fact, I find myself interested in seeing where Kick-Ass and his pint-sized affront against good taste go from here. There's something crude but oddly likable here, even though our main character is a downright insulting stand-in for a typical comic reader and our breakout characters main feature is that she's a ten year old that kills everything in sight and swears like you read about.

It's fun, in an odd way. It's crude, it's tasteless, it's really ridiculous and it completely fails to uphold it's promise of showing superheroes in the "real world". But it's kind of like a roller coaster ride of gratuitous violence and numerous other negative adjectives as only Mark Millar can provide. I'm not exactly Mark Millars biggest fan - sometimes, I feel like he's a one trick pony - but he's put together enjoyable projects in the past. I think this one fits, even if it's offensive on every conceivable level.

Make no mistake, a lot of why this works despite everything against it is the artwork of John Romita Jr. He seems to revel in the hyperviolence he's tasked to draw, getting pretty gratuitous with some scenes. When someones head is chopped off, you WILL see the actual chopping. Romita's a bit more polarizing an artist than his dad ever was - he seems to have as many detractors as he does fans - but he does good work here, aside from the occasional page that just looks off. Mark Millar's kind of like Jeph Loeb in this way; while it's a crapshoot whether a given project will actually be decently written, he's pretty damn good at attracting top tier talent. In a way, it saves some of his books.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

This one was kind of hard to grade. On the one hand, I enjoyed it in a goofy, dumb fun kind of way. But on the other hand, this book can piss you off; and really, this is not exactly premium comics. Either way, it may be worth a look, but it warrants a warning. If certain social issues tend to be your red button, skip this. It's practically designed to offend.