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Katawa Shoujo


Platform:
PC (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux x86)
Developer/Publisher:
Four Leaf Studios
Genre: Visual Novel
ESRB Rating: Unrated (This is a freeware game and did not go through any rating system at all. If it were to be rated by the ESRB, it would most likely get the mythical “AO: Adults Only” rating.)

Katawa Shoujo is a freeware title and may be downloaded free of charge from the official website. Please note that this game contains explicit adult content and should not be downloaded by persons under the age of 18 (or whatever the legal age for such things happens to be in your country.)

When most people first hear about Katawa Shoujo, they tend to be rather reluctant to give it a chance. There are several good reasons for this. For starters, at first glance it seems to be a standard-issue hentai visual novel game… in other words, porn. It certainly doesn’t help that 4chan, from whence the development team (Four Leaf Studios) sprang up, has a rather unsavory reputation here on the Interwebs. And then there’s the concept itself: a visual novel “dating-sim” sort of game centering on a cast of potential love interests who seem to carry the “gimmick” of all having some obvious physical disability, which might seem like it’s catering to some strange fetish if one has already fallen victim to the first misconception.

Let me be clear: Katawa Shoujo does indeed have explicit adult content, but calling it a hentai game or, really, any sort of porn is a gross exaggeration of how much emphasis it puts on that. What this visual novel actually is, is a deep and engaging “choose your own adventure” romance novel with endearing characters, fantastic writing, memorable music, and stellar artwork and presentation that will very likely draw you in and move you, not necessarily to tears, but enough so that it sticks with you and gets you thinking.

Having more or less given this game my unguarded recommendation already, let’s get down to brass tacks and look at it in detail.

Not exactly the most dignified way to discover that one has arrhythmia, but it could have gone a lot worse, and look on the bright side! If you had died, you would have died happy! Sure, your lifelong crush would have been traumatized by the knowledge that she had inadvertently killed you, but still…

Katawa Shoujo (literally, “Disability Girls,” although that sounds simultaneously demeaning and like some bizarre parody of the Powerpuff Girls) is told in the first person, from the perspective of Japanese high-school student Hisao Nakai. The story begins one snowy day in the woods, where Hisao’s classmate and crush has asked him to wait. When she arrives, she confesses her feelings for him. Which would be fantastic for Hisao if his body hadn’t picked that moment to announce, “Hey, dude, did I mention you have a really bad chronic and incurable heart condition?” by way of sudden heart attack. So, his life turned quite suddenly upside-down, Hisao is left to brood for four months in a hospital bed and then is forced to transfer to a new school: Yamaku Academy, a high school for the physically disabled.

The story from there chronicles the beginnings of Hisao’s new life, told chiefly through his own internal monologues and dialogue scenes with stillframe anime-style portraits of the game’s various characters. The story consists of up to four acts per playthrough, with the first act focusing on Hisao’s first days at Yamuku Academy and his first meetings with the girls the game’s five main plotlines center on. During this first act, the player is presented with a handful of decisions which, in turn, lead to other decisions, all of which pile up to determine which of the five girls Hisao spends the upcoming school festival with: that decides which “path” the story takes from there. The upshot is that Katawa Shoujo branches off from Act 2 onwards into five distinct love stories with their own central conflicts, perspectives, and emotional overtones. The five love interests in question are a motley bunch, each with their own unique personalities and underlying psychological issues which don’t entirely center on their respective disabilities. This is a refreshing aspect of the story, since when I first started reading I was worried that the characters would be one-dimensional cardboard cutouts with no discerning characteristics beyond “This girl has no arms,” “This girl is deaf,” or “This girl has burn scars all up and down one side of her body.”

This is one of the most telling aspects of Katawa Shoujo‘s characterization and storytelling: the “disabilities” aspect is handled with just about as much class and realism as is humanly possible. Yes, the characters all have physical disabilities that are obvious and very “front and center” influences on their personalities, but they aren’t defined by them. It’s a concept that could easily have gone awry, and yet it’s handled so well that it does nothing more or less than enhance the depth and impact of the thing. The setting itself is also very well fleshed-out, though having never attended a Japanese high school for the disabled I can’t speak for its authenticity.

Kenji’s courageous political stand might have been more effective if he had thought to account for the fact that the Student Council president is, well… deaf. As it stands, it’s just kind of embarrassing in hindsight. But no less admirable!

In terms of presentation, this visual novel is about as top-notch as visual novels ever get. There isn’t any voice acting, unfortunately, but the story is accompanied by fantastic character portraits and artwork, with just enough animation and sound effects thrown in to make the visual accompaniment worth it all the way through. The soundtrack, which is comprised of no less than thirty-eight original compositions, is always atmospheric and fitting for the mood and situation at hand. For the most part the soundtrack is memorable and quite beautiful, and despite one or two relatively lackluster pieces is a joy to listen to while reading. It’s found it’s way onto my PSP’s mp3 track list, if nothing else, which should say more than enough about my verdict. In addition, at the start of the game’s second act, the player is treated to a brief anime introduction video for whichever story path they’ve landed on. All of these are quite beautifully put together and serve as fantastic little mood-setters for the stories that follow them.

The level of interactivity is, sadly, pretty minimal; I only refer to Katawa Shoujo by the word “game” with a certain degree of irony. At times throughout Act 1, the player is presented with choices that have a very obvious impact on Hisao’s standing with his various acquaintances. If the game had kept that up throughout all four acts, it might have made for a great interactive story experience, but the choices you are given during future acts are neither as frequent nor as significant. One of the game’s story paths actually only has one choice after Act 1, which essentially amounts to “Cheat on your girlfriend for the bad ending, don’t cheat on your girlfriend for the good ending.” (Oh yeah, um… spoiler alert.) It’s unfortunate that the game falls short so badly in this regard, because there was potential there and what choices actually do come up are pretty interesting. The story does make up for it, but I’m left feeling somewhat like I did after finishing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots–lamenting the fact that most of the relevant gameplay is concentrated at the beginning of the game rather than consistent in quality throughout.

Sure, heart attacks are fun fun fun~! Next time y’all should try it out with me! The pins and needles are the best part, y’know, but the blinding pain is pretty neato, too~!

That complaint having been registered, the story more than makes up for it. Between Act 1 itself and the five story paths you can choose from, this novel is packed with hours of content and each story path is worth at least one read-through if for no other reason than because each offers its own distinct take on Hisao’s own progression as a character and a person. A reader’s mileage may vary on whether a given girlfriend is as interesting a character as any of the others (frankly the pushiness of Shizune and her pink-haired tagalong made it hard for me to get into their story as much as I did the other four), but the difference in personality between them results in each path having its own focus and overtones. A few of the paths are tempestuous emotional roller-coaster rides that will leave you biting your own lip with worry or frustration; others are calm and touching, or upbeat and playful. Each is an experience of its own; it’s hard for me to say definitively whether any one of them is higher or lower in quality than the others, except perhaps for the supporting characters in Shizune’s route being a fair bit less fleshed-out than the rest of the game’s cast. What’s more, since characters that are central to one path might also be involved in another, playing through all five stories actually provides a more complete picture (or at least a fresh perspective) on characters you thought you already knew well enough from that other story path you saw them in.

Each story path can end in two or three different ways depending on the choices the player makes at key moments during the course of the plot, although this isn’t always as poignant as it could be. The bad and “neutral” endings for most of the stories can be downright depressing when they happen, although a few of them feel more like abrupt and incomplete cut-offs rather than alternate endings. Some of the choices the game gives you are almost brain-dead in their simplicity, but a few might trip you up the first time you encounter them. Players who pay enough attention to the story and characters to really understand them shouldn’t have any difficulty in achieving their desired endings, but the game is built for the convenience of completionists anyway. The player can create as many save states as they desire, at any point during the story, so it’s easy to go back and experiment with the game’s decision points. In addition, the game’s Skip Mode function is very smartly programmed: it’s designed to speed through all text that the player has already encountered, automatically snapping to a halt at any instance of unread story, even if it’s just a minor divergence within a familiar scene. As a result, the novel never wastes your time. Returning to an earlier point in the story to explore a different story path or plot possibility is almost as easy as snapping your fingers.

The scary thing about Rin’s path is, I can actually follow most of her thought processes without much difficulty. This is saying something, as Rin is a walking, talking psychological clusterfuck.

Not to ignore the elephant in the room for a moment longer, though, let’s address the matter of sex scenes. There’s at least one in every story at some point or another; a few story paths have more than one, but in every case these scenes are accompanied by descriptive text and often-graphic artwork. By the wild standards often brought to mind by the word “hentai,” these scenes tend to be rather mild, but all the appropriate–or inappropriate, depending upon your point of view–anatomical bits are visible at some time or other. The development team was sporting enough to include a “Disable Adult Content” option for those uncomfortable with the site of human sexy-parts, though, which cuts out the main sex-scene segments (the exact mode of censorship is rather “What The Fuck” on its own merits, mind you). It’s a rather tacked-on option but it’s nice to have anyway, since not everyone is necessarily as comfortable as I am with uncensored sexual content. Readers should be advised that there will still be times when the topless character portrait shows–initially I had been under the impression that there would be something covering that up with the censorship active, but it turned out not to be the case.

The scenes themselves are relatively tasteful and realistic. But I really should clarify what I mean by that, since my definition of “tasteful” in this context is probably different than most others. What I mean by this is that when a sex scene happens, it happens and it’s not over-glorified or over-emphasized. The characters behave in the way you’d expect hormonal teenagers to behave, with their occasional forays into fetish territory and whatnot–it’s not the kind of flowery hyper-romanticized sex that sings of pure love and so forth, it’s just sex. But by that same token, it’s also… just sex. It’s never over-the-top and it’s not always graceful, either. In a society that often puts a little too much emphasis on having sex like a porn star, always having a perfect figure, et cetera et cetera, I can kind of respect this approach.

If I had to complain about it at all, my complaint would be that it’s not always necessary. A few of the sex scenes actually seem to come out-of-nowhere and for the life of me I can’t think of why they even happened apart from “Er… you’re on the good ending route and we haven’t had a sex scene yet… um um um… yikes, we’d better have a sex scene before the credits roll!” On those occasions, it leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth because those scenes kind of run contrary to the tone of the story as a whole. It’s at these times when the game feels least like a romance and most like a hentai. Fortunately, those times are the exception rather than the rule… little ungainly pimples on the face of an otherwise great experience. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the sex scenes stand out as important events in the story, such that I can’t really imagine the plot working as well were the sex scenes removed. Still other times they just depict a normal and healthy (if… slightly awkward) relationship between a guy and his girlfriend.

I will say this, though: when you’re on the edge of your seat wondering if the protagonist is going to die of a heart attack in the middle of an erotic encounter with the love of his life, it’s hard to feel particularly voyeuristic. And Hisao’s heart condition does bite him in the ass during one or two of these scenes. It’s hard not to sympathize with him when it does, although by that point I’m also slightly in awe of the human libido’s capacity to completely override common sense.

In closing, Katawa Shoujo is a marvel. At times tragic, at times erotic, at times hilariously stupid, at times mind-boggling, at times just good old-fashioned camaraderie and fun, and at times even outright inspiring, this is a visual novel that anyone with a taste for a good romance will most likely appreciate. The more carnal side of it may turn some people off to it, and it’s admittedly one of the more awkward things one might attempt to recommend to their friends, but at the end of the day the bottom line is this: I thoroughly enjoyed it, and recommend it to anyone who believes they might be able to look past the skin-deep impression of “Oh look, it’s a hentai game with amputees… ew.”

Because that skin-deep impression isn’t fair at all.

Besides, it’s free. You really have nothing to lose by checking it out.

Dear deviantART…

Dear deviantART,

A random picture of yourself naked is not nude art. It’s just a random picture of yourself, except naked. Nude art involves artful posing, backgrounds that aren’t just your own plain bedroom, and so on and so forth. Generally speaking, there’s something either graceful or scintillating (possibly both) about nude art, without it necessarily having to be entirely sexual. A plain, no-nonsense picture of a naked man/woman does nothing and is therefore just a photograph. For the record, deviantART is not a website for adult personals, so there’s no point just uploading a random picture of yourself with no clothes on. If you’re going to do so and pretend it qualifies as “nude art,” at least pretend to be slightly artistic about it.

A picture of your own erect penis is not nude art, either. It’s just a picture of your penis.

If you think either of the above is “art” by any stretch of the concept, please re-think your tastes. Because they suck. Horribly.

Yours in fellowship,
Lewis Medeiros

P.S. Applying grayscale to a picture of your penis isn’t enough to make it art, by the way. Just saying.

Guess what, kiddies! It’s time for another wall of text. But not just any wall of text, oh no, this one’s fanfiction-related. Because that’s totally what this blog is for, right?!

…In any case, I’ve been in a fanfic-reading mood lately, so I’ve been browsing FanFiction.Net a bit more than I usually do. Now, a good rule of thumb when browsing that site is to give each story’s first chapter a quick once-over and hit the back button if the grammar isn’t at least B-grade passable (or if the story is written in English but accompanied by some manner of “i no good at english so plz be nice” note, in which case why are you writing in English and posting your stories if you already know they suck…?). As I touched on last time I wrote about fanfiction, this isn’t always enough to ward off the droves and droves of utter crap that obscure the good stuff. Even people who are absolutely brilliant at writing can suck the big one when it comes to characterization and story-telling. Case in point: people who Gary-Stuify (or Mary-Sueify, as the gender case may be) the main character of the franchise they are fan-ficking.

It happens a lot, and I do mean a LOT, with Naruto, Harry Potter, and Persona fanfiction. It’s easy to understand why it happens with Persona, since the main character is a blank-slate silent protagonist who has no character, so in that case my complaint doesn’t really apply. But nothing makes me hate a fanfiction in quite the same way as an author taking the main character of a story I love, stripping him of everything that made him unique, and turning him into a cardboard-cutout [insert choice of Gary Stu varient here]. There’s no excuse to get these characters wrong, people; they’ve already been characterized, and by much better writers than you (and yes, dumbass, Masashi Kishimoto is a much better writer than you; not that he’s particularly good, but I’m sure you get my meaning, yeah?). The most irritating thing about these stories is that their most common and obvious offense is purely cosmetic: they take even the distinct descriptive features of a character and totally overwrite them. For example…

Harry Potter. He has perpetually messy hair, he’s got glasses, and he’s skinny as fuck. Also he’s a Gryffindor and he’s crap with the ladies. But one author doesn’t like that, so said author gives him laser eye surgery, sets him on a massive protein binge and then force-feeds him approximately sixteen gallons of undiluted testosterone. The result: a positively uber-manly lady-killer who inexplicably has enough magical skill to duel one-on-ten with Lord Voldemort’s Shadow Clone Platoon and come out smelling like Axe and roses, with perfect eyesight but still with the messed-up hair, because without the messed-up hair the characters wouldn’t have a reason to joke about how combing his hair is a hopeless endeavor every two chapters. This uber-manly “not Harry” is usually either a Slytherin or a Ravenclaw, or a Gryffindor who decides to hang out with Slytherins while Ron becomes an absolute jealous prick about it (usually accompanied by some form of character-bashing “hilarity”), and who is suddenly and inexplicably hostile toward Albus Dumbledore, who in a good 75% of these fanfictions is a total manipulative bastard who may or may not be embezzling money from Harry’s absolutely bottomless family vault at Gringotts. Also, this uber-manly not-Harry is suddenly recognized as the Head of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Potter, making him an important political figure. Neville Longbottom is usually along for the ride as an heir of the Noble House of Longbottom. This revelation usually comes by way of Daphne Greengrass, also known as The School’s Least Offensive Slytherin or, alternately, the Ice Queen (in the actual books, Daphne is mentioned by name exactly one time in book five and then never appears again: in other words, a character left entirely to the reader’s imagination and the tender mercies of the fanfiction community).

Now, maybe you can’t tell why I rage so hard against this sort of portrayal. If so, then consider: they take everything “flawed” about Harry’s physical appearance, or nearly everything, and replace it with the most objectified, stereotypically “dashing” and “badass” male perfection they can imagine. Then they completely gut his personality and stuff one of their own into its skin, usually in the form of someone who is impossibly skilled at magic and not afraid to verbally tear into anyone who looks at him sideways (essentially becoming a mouthpiece through which the author voices anything and everything they don’t like about a given character, directly to their face). They are able to be complete an utter assholes with impunity. The characters that the author likes side with the Gary-Stuified “Not-Harry” and worship him, becoming the picture-perfect friends that they may or may not actually be when they’re in-character. The characters that the author does not like become hated enemies, usually cannon fodder for “humor” scenes that aren’t remotely funny for anyone who isn’t inclined to guffaw like Crabbe and Goyle in the face of character bashing.

It’s a similar case with Naruto, although in that event it’s usually limited to either A) changing his clothes to something not-orange while replacing the hyperactive-idiot with the same basic Gary Stu portrayal described above (read “magic” as “ninjutsu”); or B) giving him some form of overpowered kekkei-genkai, probably the Sharingan or Rinnegan, and then doing everything listed in Option A. Now, I can understand why people dislike Naruto from the “he’s not a ninja” standpoint, but setting aside debate over whether or not this actually works… that is kind of the point of his character. The fact that he does things in a distinctly un-ninjalike way is both a point of characterization and the butt of many a joke throughout the entire Naruto series. There have been, actually, several really good stories I’ve read that explore this aspect and experiment with a “more ninja-like” Naruto without blithely over-writing his personality with something else (Better Left Unsaid by Kenchi618 is a good example), but ham-handedly flip-turning the universe upside-down a well-written story does not make.

And to be perfectly blunt about it, if you’re at the point where you feel the urge to write in an entirely different protagonist and bash everyone that protagonist likes or allies themselves with, why the hell–why the hell–are you even a fan of the series to begin with?

The upshot in both cases and all others like them is that they take everything human and/or relatable about the characters and toss it in the garbage, replacing it with the template of what might qualify as the ultimate male pornstar. Does that sound like a recipe for literary brilliance to you? Because it sounds like piss mixed with vinegar to me.

As a closing bit of clarification, I want to state full-out that alternate-universe stories or time-travel stories are entirely different kettle of fish and weren’t on my mind at all whilst writing this little rant. I have thoughts on those as well (they do tend to degenerate into Gary Stu fics quite easily, too), but those are a seperate matter with their own list of do’s and don’ts that I just don’t feel like getting into right now. I just felt like venting for a bit. Until next time, lads and lasses (which will hopefully be a review of Persona 4 Arena), I bid you adieu.

Platforms: Sony PlayStation 2, Sony PlayStation Portable
Developer/Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Role-Playing Game
ESRB Rating: “M” for Mature (Ages 17 and up)

Sometimes I get so caught-up in Final Fantasy that I just forget there are other — often better — Japanese RPGs out there. But other JRPGs there most certainly are, and I’m in love with quite a few; Wild ARMs 3Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed KingXenosaga, and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time are a few personal favorites of mine. But there’s one franchise that sticks out in my mind more vividly than the rest, and that franchise is Shin Megami Tensei, which at present I’ve only really scratched the surface of. There are a number of different spin-off franchises beneath the SMT brand umbrella apart from the main games (the most recent of which is the PS2’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the third game in the main series). The most popular of them — at least here in the States — is probably the Persona series, which includes five games, a number of enhanced re-releases, and a fighting game spin-off of its own. While sharing many aspects of its parent franchise, including the familiar line-up of demons which serve as the various “Personas” the player can wield, this particular series of games very much does its own thing — the third and fourth installments in particular.

This review covers two specific versions of Persona 3: the expanded PlayStation 2 re-release, Persona 3 FES, and the more recent enhanced remake for the PSP, Persona 3 Portable. Right off the bat, I’d like to say that I highly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys JRPGs, and maybe even to those who dislike how “samey” JRPGs tend to be (unless you have an intense hatred of Japan itself or something, as the game takes place there). But the question of which of these two versions would be best for you is still worth thinking about, as both have some rather significant ups and downs that set them apart; one might go so far as to say that neither is a truly “definitive” version.

Persona 3 follows the adventures of a silent protagonist (commonly called “Minato Arisato” amongst the fanbase) who spends his days attending the local high school, hanging with friends, and hitting up the local karaoke joint… and spends his nights exploring Tartarus, a tower filled to bursting with demonic Shadows. Shortly after moving to a new town and enrolling at Gekkoukan High, the player gets roped into a secret school club’s efforts to combat the Shadows that emerge every night during a hidden “Dark Hour” that occurs at 12 A.M. sharp, leaving a growing list of victims as complete vegetables with each passing night. S.E.E.S. (short for “Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad”) is a group composed of those rare individuals who not only are able to experience the Dark Hour, but who awaken to the power known as “Persona,” the only means by which Shadows can be defeated.

What is a Persona, you ask? A Persona is a demon or spirit that manifests as a reflection of the wielder’s psyche, and which can kick major ass when summoned. And how does a member of S.E.E.S. tap into this power? By taking a gun-like device called an “Evoker,” pointing it at their own head, and pulling the trigger. It’s like symbolism, but with shock value! Incidentally, most Persona-users have only a single Persona at their command, but you as the protagonist are special — you have the ability to store multiple Personas and switch between them as needed in battle. So obviously, as the new guy, you’re the leader.

It’s a simple enough premise, and if there’s one issue this game has it’s that a fair amount of game time happens between major story events, so if you’re the type of gamer who plays for the story, this game might not quite do it for you. The plot is good and the characters well-developed, and there are a fair few twists here and again to keep things interesting, but I wouldn’t call the story the driving force of this game. This is actually a JRPG that I play primarily for the gameplay; as tends to be the case with Shin Megami Tensei, the challenge level is fairly high, but unlike most turn-based RPGs, the game seems to be specifically engineered to ward off power-leveling.

The game’s combat always occurs at night, when (at the player’s discretion) S.E.E.S. may explore the mysterious tower that Gekkoukan High School transforms into during the Dark Hour. Tartarus is a massive, randomly-generated labyrinth dungeon to which the player will be returning throughout the course of the game; floors are randomly mapped-out and previously-explored floors change their layouts with each passing in-game “day.” Rather than the random battles common to RPGs of the time, Tartarus is full of roaming Shadows which the player can strike from behind for a preemptive strike (or get jumped by if they’re just not paying attention), meaning that prudent players who know how to pick their battles can make more progress up the tower per night than players who insist on fighting every Shadow they come across. Spending too much time fighting battles in Tartarus will tire your characters out and eventually they may even get sick; the stat penalties incurred when this happens make even random battles inordinately dangerous. Characters only recover to “Good” status after spending a few in-game calendar days without exploring Tartarus, so the player has to balance training their characters and Personas at night with all of the more mundane concerns that daytime brings.

Rocked to DEATH by Orpheus, the Master of Strings. Hell yeah.

Daytime is where Persona 3 differs wildly from its predecessors, as day-to-day school life and the social interactions that come with it are very much part of the gameplay. The player is given free reign on most days to roam around the school and a few particular social hot-spots around Iwatodai and Tatsumi Port Island — this is the player’s chance to stock up on weapons, armor, accessories, and recovery items, but more importantly, this is the player’s chance to spend time with the game’s various NPCs, many of whom have their own personal issues or quandaries and most of whom (if they have character portraits) provide the protagonist with valuable Social Links that zap his Personas with a shot of extra experience whenever the player creates one via Fusion (more on that in a bit). The name of the game really is “Social Link” during the daytime, as there are a limited number of “days” in the game and certain NPCs are only available during specific days of the week. While making the correct dialogue choices required to advance your relationships rather than screw them up isn’t exactly hard (one could almost say that the secret is to simply nod and smile), balancing all of the game’s varying Social Links with training at Tartarus, as well as with such options as going to the movies, eating at a specific restaurant, or studying at the library to boost your character’s personality values — thereby opening up other Social Links further down the line — can be fairly tricky. It helps to know that if you have a Persona in your protagonist’s arsenal whose “Arcana” class matches the Arcana of the Social Link, you gain more points toward the next rank every time you earn them. (The in-game message telling you so is a bit vague on that point, so it’s worth pointing out here.)

Social Links, which are basically just level rankings tracking how deep your bonds are with the people you meet, are a fairly fun gameplay mechanic and present some interesting little subplots and side-stories, although they’re rarely demanding or difficult by any stretch. The daytime sections of the game play like a fairly simple social-simulator, which doesn’t sound like much when spelled out like that but presents a more interesting non-combat side of things than most RPGs tend to have going for them (Dragon Age II in particular could have benefited from some aspects of this system). When it comes to the combat, however, Social Links only really factor in to Persona Fusion, a mechanic similar to demon-fusion in main-series Shin Megami Tensei. Persona Fusion is a service provided by series mainstay Igor and his lovely assistant Elizabeth — who of course spend the entire game chillaxin’ in the Velvet Room, which fans may remember from previous games. Players can opt to fuse either two or three of the Personas in their current lineup together to create a single, new Persona that can randomly inherit skills possessed by the Personas used to create it — which often grants them abilities they never would have learned on their own. Social Links matching the Arcana class of the Persona you create will inject that Persona with a healthy shot of EXP based on the Link’s current rank, often causing the Persona to jump up three or more levels the moment it’s born.

Minato: “Meh, who cares. I mean, pshaw… it’s not like rumors can COME TRUE, or anything…”

This is the sort of game mechanic that has potential to be very Guide Dang It, but Persona 3 neatly side-steps that particular problem by letting the player see what Personas they can create with all their possible combinations, as well as what skills they’ll inherit, before the player commits to anything. So while there’s a degree of experimentation required to get the most out of Igor’s services, you don’t actually have to waste anything because of it.

Speaking of the Velvet Room, Elizabeth will eventually provide you with another thing to waste your days with: a list of sidequests ranging from requests to slay a specific monster and bring back an item it drops, to fetching a specific item or items during the day in Iwatodai, to escorting Elizabeth around on dates in the human world (which is always amusing). The quests are usually pretty simple (although a certain kind of quest, the “Find this item on this specific day” variety, is a bit cryptic until you realize you just neat to talk to a certain party member at the dorm on the day the quest tells you to find the item and they’ll just up and give it to you), but the rewards are always worth it if you complete the quests in a timely manner. A rare few can be rather annoying, but it’s a welcome dose of extra things to do.

Elizabeth’s sidequests may seem pointless and random… and that’s because they are.

The combat system itself is standard turn-based fare, of the sort employed by the likes of Final Fantasy X — the player enters commands on a turn-by-turn basis, rather than all of their commands at once at the beginning of a round. Scoring a critical hit or attacking an enemy with its elemental weakness will knock the enemy off its feet and give the attacking character an extra action for that turn, although this particular mechanic swings both ways; the enemy can take advantage of it as well. If you manage to knock down all enemies at once, your party can perform an “All-Out Attack,” which is nothing more or less than all of them dog-piling the enemy party in a cloud of dust, devastation, and comic-book sound effects.

Unless you’re playing on Easy Mode, the overall challenge level in combat is fairly tense. Single random encounters will rarely be a danger, but between the amount of health or magic you use up with every battle, the dangers of fatigue, and the occasional more powerful enemy, the “long haul” can be quite dangerous. This is one of the few RPGs I’ve played that managed to hit me with multiple Game Overs outside of boss battles.

The catch, at least in FES, is that the player can only directly control the actions of the protagonist, which is a puzzling limitation when you consider that both Persona and Persona 2 (both games in the dualogy) allowed players full control of their entire party. During the protagonist’s turn, the player can set the party’s Tactics however they like, based on whether they want a character to act freely, heal and support, focus on a specific target, or simply sit on their thumbs. At first the list of Tactics is short and simple, but as the story progresses and the S.E.E.S. Social Link ranks up, new and more specific Tactics are gradually added to the menu. There’s also no “defend” option, merely a “wait” command — another oddity, since in early stages of the game it’s often prudent to wait around a turn when you encounter a new Shadow so that Mitsuru, your radio support, has time to analyze its weaknesses. This is where Persona 3 Portable earns a definite point over the PS2 versions: it uses the Persona 4 combat system, which includes not just a guard command and full party control, but a few interesting tweaks like the ability to make knocked-over enemies dizzy for an extra turn if you hit them hard enough while they’re down.

When you’re facing down four or five Shadows and your protagonist just happens to have the spell they’re all weak against, that’s when you know it’s a party.

Portable‘s more refined combat comes at a price, however, as a few notable aspects of the gameplay were changed in more questionable ways. For one thing, in FES and the original release, having two specific Personas in your arsenal at one time allowed the protagonist to cast special Fusion Spells, but Portable removes this mechanic and relegates the Fusion Spells to the role of combat items. Likewise, the protagonist’s ability to equip multiple weapon types in the PS2 versions was removed from Portable for no discernible reason; they can now only wield the weapon type they start with (one-handed sword for the male protagonist, naginata for the female). On a less negative note, however, climbing Tartarus in Portable is a lot more manageable because it gives you the option to instantly skip up to the highest floor you’ve reached when you approach the entrance, as in Persona 4‘s dungeons. Characters also do not become fatigued by merely fighting in Portable, although they will get tired if they’re knocked out at the end of a battle and are revived, as well as when you leave Tartarus — the upshot being that you can do as much as you want per night, allowing for a lot more grinding.

Bosses in this game can be quite a handful, doubly so because there’s no real possibility of being significantly over-leveled unless you really work at it. You’re not likely to be under-leveled when you reach a boss unless you skip a lot of combat, but even so you should save your game and heal up before fighting them; you’re likely to fail once or twice while working out what spells to cast and what Personas to use. This is largely because, no matter what version you play, if your protagonist is defeated, it’s instant fail no matter what state your allies are in. This is especially annoying when the enemy happens to have area-of-effect instant-death spells, as Murphy’s Law dictates that everyone will dodge except the one whose death actually matters.

You can’t see it in this screenshot, but the letter on her left boob is “J.” No, I’m not joking. Atlus is weird like that.

Story presentation is relatively simple for a PlayStation 2 game: cutscenes play out with stock animations, anime-style emotes, text dialogue, and character portraits with appropriate expression changes when needed. Important scenes have voice acting for the dialogue, and to the game’s credit it’s all very good voice acting, but less important scenes such as pop quizzes at school or Social Link events require the player to read and… imagine. The plot itself is structured to occur over the course of a calendar year, with major plot events occurring at every full moon (though there are plot events scattered hither and thither in-between, too). It should be noted that there is a bad ending as well as a good ending, but this is based on a single choice toward the end of the game and it should be fairly obvious when it happens what the “right” choice actually is.

Persona 3 Portable takes a major hit in the presentation department, with all of its anime cutscenes having been removed, most cutscenes reduced to still-frame slideshows with character portraits representing characters, and all town sections presented as point-and-click “menu” images rather than actual areas to explore as in the PS2 versions. While the gameplay doesn’t suffer at all for the change, it does lose some of its impact and is definitely another unquestionable negative for that version.

An example of the PSP version’s town exploration mechanic. On the plus side, at least it doesn’t take so long to jog to the other side of the room!

Musically, the game has a catchy line-up, although certain tracks may not be to a given player’s taste no matter how “good” they technically are. Shoji Meguro and the other composers who worked on additional tracks in FES and Portable did a good job, which is helpful because this is one of those pesky games where you’re going to be hearing the same handful of tracks over and over again — one theme for battles, one for each section of Tartarus, one for school, one for town, one for the stores, one for Social Links, and so forth. Lacking the variety of other RPGs, it can get a bit stale after a while.

The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, partially because this is a PS2 game but mostly just because they didn’t do as much with them as other RPGs of the time so the result looks a bit low-budget. Character models are relatively low-poly, and while the interior of Tartarus gets a new coat of paint with every “block” you advance through, it’s obvious that the dungeon is comprised of a bunch of stock hallways. This level of presentation value may have been passable at the time, but it hasn’t aged all too well, so the view from this side of 2011 is a touch unflattering.

If you happen to still be interested in the game at this point in the review, the last thing worth talking about would be the pros and cons of the different versions. The original Persona 3 is always an option, but FES is literally the same game with additional content — and Persona 3 FES is now available on the PlayStation Store as a PS2 Classic for the PlayStation 3, at the respectably low cost of $10, which is a bargain indeed for such a fantastic RPG. Persona 3 Portable is a bit more of a question mark next to FES, and here’s why.

The female protagonist of P3P, sporting one of those oh-so-special alternate costume armors and a hockey stick in place of her customary naginata. What can I say, she was feeling sporty that day. Also, Yukari was playing some Christmas-themed roleplay with her boyfriend but got called in on short notice and didn’t have time to change.

Persona 3 FES has several things that Portable doesn’t; anime FMVs, actual in-game cutscenes, Fusion Spells as actual spells… and an entire playable epilogue chapter that the PSP version didn’t include for some reason. This extra mode, called “Episode Aigis” in the Japanese version and “The Answer” in English, is a thirty-some hour post-ending story starring Aigis as the protagonist and featuring all of the members recruited to S.E.E.S. during the course of the main story, and is entirely focused on combat and dungeon-crawling. I can’t say much about the story without spoiling the ending of the main game, but it’s an interesting follow-up and quite fun to play but for one rather dominant flaw: you can’t change the difficulty, and it’s locked into Hard Mode, which means it’s a brutal-as-all-the-hells bloody fudging grindfest. Depending on personal preference, it may be better to simply watch it on YouTube than to actually play it, but this is a significant amount of content and it’s simply not there at all, modified or otherwise, in the PSP version.

That said, Persona 3 Portable does bring some worthwhile added content of its own to the table. I am referring of course to the new option to play through the game as a girl (who in fanfiction is most commonly named “Minako” and “Hamuko,” among a few others). As the game specifically spells out when you start a new game, this isn’t just for female players; playing as the female protagonist changes up most of the social-interaction content, with characters that were simply buddies or pals in the main game being potential romance options while the male lead’s lineup of possible girlfriends become eighty percent of your “friend” options. More interestingly, every single party member has a Social Link when you’re the female protagonist, so you now have the option to get to know each of them on a more personal level, which helps you feel more connected to your battle buddies. Some Social Links that the male protagonist had aren’t available to the female lead (such as the “Online Game” Social Link with Little Miss Persona 2 Reference), but by that same token there are a few new Social Links exclusive to the female protagonist, such as the new sports club character or Shinjiro. As an added touch, the female protagonist has more frequent dialogue choices, and her options tend to be livelier — in keeping with her more cheery and exuberant appearance and mannerisms. She also has the option to exchange the original Velvet Room assistant for a man named Theodore, although to be honest in my playthrough I kept Elizabeth so I’ve not the foggiest clue about this new guy or what he brings to the table, apart from him being voiced by the same guy who voiced Jonny in Catherine.

In addition, most of those tracks you hear over and over during the course of the game as the male lead are changed up for the female’s story — she gets her own battle theme, sub-boss theme, town theme, Social Link theme, school theme, and so forth. It’s actually quite refreshing, and all of these new tracks are great in their own way. I actually kind of prefer the battle and mini-boss themes over the originals, although I still wish the game had multiple battle themes like Nocturne does.

If the only thing you took from this screenshot is “Why is Yukari using suction-cup arrows?” then my work here is complete.

There’s enough plus-and-minus between the two versions that I actually advise anyone who really likes whichever version they play first to get the other and play that as well. Fortunately, apart from the obnoxiously long intro story scenes, Persona 3 has decent replay value for an RPG, between its New Game Plus feature and completing the Persona Compendium (which is sort of like a Pokédex, except you can register the current state of your Persona and re-summon them for a price at any time if you dismiss them or use them in Fusion) is a fun little time-sink if you happen to be klepto enough for it. There isn’t as much replay value as there could be, though; for example, when the game gives you a choice between joining kendo, swimming, and track teams at school, you might think it’s a choice between three different Social Links, but you always meet the same character on the team you choose and experience almost entirely the same side-plot with them. (Persona 4 did this right with the choice between drama and band clubs, which both have a different Social Link character with a different personal problem.)

Another complaint that I have, since we’re on the subject of Social Links, is the fact that you can’t hang out with a girl unless you want to date her. It’s annoying because the only way to get all of them ranked up to max in one playthrough is to methodically date one girl after another and then dump them each out the window, which of course makes me feel like a complete jerkass. You do keep the ability to make the bonus Personas that max-rank Links unlock for you between playthroughs, though, so it’s not really necessary. I just wish you had the option to go through with the Social Links without actually “going out.” I mean, what god of stupid decided that guys and girls can only hang out if they’re eventually going to have sex? Or that they can only have a close bond if it’s a romantic bond?

Portable‘s female protagonist is much better about this; she can pal around with all of the male characters without being railroaded into a romance with them, yet another improvement to the game that carries over from the Persona 4 formula (where the protagonist can befriend girls without necessarily dating them). The male protagonist is still forced to date everyone in the flippin’ universe if he wants to max out all Social Links in a single playthrough, however. Which, while entirely possible with no notable gameplay penalty, tends to make one feel like an utter jerkass.

There’s one last point to mention when it comes to replay value: FES has only Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulties. Portable adds an even easier Beginner Mode, and an even more ridiculous Maniac Mode. I haven’t actually played either of those, though. My brief foray into Hard Mode in FES was frustrating enough.

Bottom line: Persona 3 is awesome, full stop. Not perfect, but awesome. There’s a bit of a decision to be made about exactly what kind of awesome you want to play, but it’s still awesome no matter what kind of awesome it is.

Now get out there, pick up this game, and shoot yourself in the head already!

In my last update, “WordPress Necromancy,” I mentioned that I’ve spent a lot of time this past year writing fanfiction. And I have. I’ve also spent a good amount of time reading fanfiction. Why would I subject myself to such horrors, you ask? Because some fanfiction is actually good, believe it or not. A few are actually great. Blows the mind, doesn’t it?

More often, of course, fanfiction outright sucks or lands squarely in that “meh” domain that isn’t worth mentioning one way or another. But that actually has less to do with it being fanfiction than it has to do with the open-to-the-public nature of the thing; as there are no editors, agents, or publishers sifting through the work and deciding which authors are and are not worth investing in, there’s nothing to stop the sewage from being posted. Hence, the vast majority of the content on FanFiction.Net is either bad… or horribad.

That shouldn’t even need stating, really. It’s as much a fact of nature at this point as “the sky is blue” and “grass is green” and “Lewis will most likely forget trash day this week.” What I want to talk about isn’t how most of it sucks; I want to talk about the way authors react when told they’ve done something wrong with their work.

You see, I recently read a crossover story that looked mildly interesting at first blush, and in fact started out relatively well. It even has decent writing quality, which is usually… usually, not always… a sign that the writer knows what he or she is doing. It was a crossover story in which Harry Potter, being stressed out by his vital role in the ongoing war against Lord Voldemort, is visited by three Legendary Pokémon (namely: Mew, Celebi, and Jirachi) and given the opportunity to take a vacation of sorts in another world. He is thus transported to the Pokémon universe and the rest is history. Sounds trite? Maybe it does, but it was still going pretty well until Giovanni entered the picture.

I have no intention of naming names or linking directly to the story in question, but here’s the long and short of what sparked this article. The writer of this crossover introduced Giovanni into the story… who, canonically, is the leader of the organization known as Team Rocket. Keep in mind that this fiction apparently goes by anime canon, in which Giovanni (on those occasions on which he appears) is not at all portrayed in a positive light. In this story, Harry encounters Giovanni taking a random walk in the woods, within walking distance of Pallet Town, no less, who has sprained his ankle. Giovanni is a polite man, who has a sudden “Eureka” moment upon Harry’s suggestion that Team Rocket only steal (or “rescue”) Pokémon who have been abused by their owners rather than ones who are already loyal to loving trainers. Oh, and did I mention that Giovanni, even before his debut in this story, was apparently good friends with Ash Ketchum’s mother and Professor Oak? Check that: the leader of a criminal organization whose trademark is Pokémon theft… is friends with Professor Oak and Ash Ketchum’s bloody mom.

It’s flat, blatantly out-of-character, totally random, and more to the point, it has no redeeming qualities to it whatsoever. This kind of thing happens quite a lot in fanfiction, actually. Often, it stems from a particular writer wanting to emphasize a character’s redeeming qualities (or qualities they errantly think are there, if none actually exist) and instead forgetting to include the other ones. The result is not only as flat and unappetizing as that bottle of soda my brother left open on his desk for three days, it’s also not the character it was supposed to be anymore.

Now, I, in my infinite wisdom, took the overall decent writing quality of the story as a sign that the writer took their work at least seriously enough to appreciate constructive criticism. So I reviewed it, and said pretty much what I’ve already stated here. My response amounted to “I appreciate constructive criticism, but it’s my story so you can take your constructive criticism and stuff it up your arse.” The writer wasn’t so blunt in their wording, of course, but the point seemed to be that despite my complaint being legitimate, somehow the mere concept of “fanfiction” makes stories immune to criticisms involving character development quality, because the word “fanfiction” apparently means the writer isn’t obliged to take their work seriously. (Um, really?) Oh, and the usual FF.net mantra of “Don’t like, don’t READ!” (More on my passionate hatred of that mantra in a bit…)

I wasn’t quite sure I was dealing with a sore loser at this point, so in my (ahem) infinite wisdom, I decided to reply to this PM. I told the writer that it’s all well and good if you want to write a character that isn’t Giovanni, so long as you write a character that actually isn’t Giovanni. Hey, I think it makes sense. I also pointed out that even if this randomly Super!Good!Giovanni character weren’t totally out of sync with anything and everything Giovanni stands for, flat and one-dimensional characters are still flat and one-dimensional… which, readers, is never a good thing unless done for comedic value, which this clearly wasn’t. In my review, I had even provided a decent alternative suggestion to Super!Good!Giovanni… a redemption angle. You know, where the canon Evil!Giovanni actually develops into a good character through some believable sequence of events that change his outlook?

The writer then proceeded to block me, which at this moment is mildly annoying because it means I can’t go back and re-read the PMs themselves to make sure I’m portraying them fairly. But more importantly, the fact that I hadn’t said anything offensive in my review or response (I actually made a point to be as polite as I could) and still got blocked pretty much confirmed the type of writer I was dealing with. Which is a pitty, because the writing quality actually was pretty good and that’s a rare, precious commodity on that site (most stories are either grammatically butchered, formatting nightmares, or grammatically butchered formatting nightmares).

I suppose what I really want to say by all of this is that even if you’re not in it for “keeps,” as it were, fanfiction isn’t somehow magically immune to the standards that original fiction is measured against. Flat and one-dimensional characters are still flat and one-dimensional. Bad writing is still bad writing. And saying “I appreciate constructive criticism” when you really don’t only makes you look like a berk, so… fanfiction writers, if any of you are reading this, please do not follow this nameless author’s example. Take your reviews with grace, dammit. And for God’s sake, don’t tell me you don’t care what your reviewers think. You’re publishing your story on the Internet for the sole purpose of having it read by people other than yourself, so of course you care what others think. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t care about the positive reviews, either.

Closing Tangent: A prevelant sort of mantra on FanFiction.Net is the concept of “don’t like, don’t read,” which seems to be a ward against reviews that don’t agree with “love teh story, update soon!!!1!one!” Basically, it’s a supposedly nice way of saying, “If you don’t like the garbage I put out, keep it to yourself, because I’m too emotionally delicate to take criticism.” Some might say they only say it because they don’t want to be flamed, but the umbrella’s just too wide to limit itself to just one type of negative review. My real beef with this mantra is the sheer impossibility of it: how does one know if they like a story, without first reading it? “Don’t like, don’t read,” you say? How about, “Don’t read, don’t like?” Because that’s my policy toward pretty much everything that wastes summary space on something like “don’t like, don’t read…” I just don’t read it at all, and thus don’t give myself the chance to like it in the first place. It’s the only logical way to follow the author’s instructions, after all!

Edit: The author apparently has a brother, who thinks I owe his sister an apology for hurting her sensitive feelings. He also blocked me before I even had a chance to read his PM. So, um… how does he expect me to give any sort of apology, even if I felt I had done something wrong? Again, I’m not naming names, but… seriously, dude. Common sense. Go out and buy some.

Update: WordPress Necromancy

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, hamsters and gerbils, rabbits and reptiles! It is I, Solaris Paradox, your very own resident procrastinator extraordinaire, here to inform anyone who still gives a fecal nugget about this blog that I am not dead and have no intention of abandoning my efforts to mouth off about videogames on the Internet in my spare time! I am, however, also here to apologize for neglecting to post any updates for the better part of a year. I had intended to keep this blog alive with a steady stream of reviews and editorials, but I — in my despair at having absolutely no success finding a job or source of income — kind of lost my passion for doing much of anything. I have, however, recently enrolled at ITT Technical Institute, an event that has re-sparked some of my old, lost enthusiasm. So here I am, bringing this dead blog back to life.

And let me tell you, it’s no mean feat trying to track down a necromancer who’ll sell his services in the price range of the hopelessly unemployed. I defy anyone reading this to try it sometime.

There are only a couple of other things worth mentioning. First and most practical of the bunch, the commentary group that I run with over on YouTube (BrainScratchComms) has recently ascended to Partner status, with income from ad revenue being split four ways between myself, Nayrman214, SomecallmeJohnny, and ExandShadow. So I do at least have a small trickle of income to subsist on during the course of my upcoming college education and its accompanying hunt for real work. On a less practical note, much of my abundant off-time over the past year has been spent writing fanfiction that only marginally surpasses the usual craptacular works that smother those rare gems of decency one might occasionally stumble across on FanFiction.Net. I think the fact that four of my stories are “gamer from the real world gets transported to the universe of [insert game here] and has a chance to screw with the timeline” tropes speaks somewhat to my lack of conceptual originality.

My current gaming addiction is Final Fantasy XIII-2, which I’ll be spending a good amount of time playing through before I actually get around to reviewing it. In the meantime, I’ll see about putting together a review of Final Fantasy XIII and perhaps a possible “we’ve been waiting six years and counting, yet we’re still somehow psyched enough to give a shyte” impressions article on Final Fantasy Versus XIII. I will say that my impression of XIII-2 is currently quite favorable, although I want to play a more completionist run and have a go at the recently-released Snow and Lightning DLC story episodes before I put together a definitive review.

So, then: this has been Solaris Paradox, great sage and eminent sodaholic. Until next posting, I bid you adieu.

Platforms: Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3
Developer: Sonic Team – Publisher: SEGA
Genre: Action/Adventure/Platformer
ESRB Rating: “E10+” for Everyone Ages 10 and Up

Over the past year or two I’ve grown up in a number of ways, some of which might qualify as life-changing epiphanies or world-shattering realizations that completely change the way I look at the world. The one that’s relevant to this review is utterly inconsequential: I realized that I was too damn defensive about games that I’m determined from the off to enjoy.

I think, actually, that a lot of gamers share this problem, and many of those that don’t fall into the opposite side of the ballpark: the side that focuses too much on a game’s flaws without acknowledging enough of what was good about it. It’s a textbook glass-half-empty, glass-half-full psychology, I think, but as someone who would quite like to review videogames professionally (and, if possible, by way of actual profession), the revelation that I am simply too forgiving just made me want to head-desk. I didn’t, of course, not being a fan of bumps to the head. But you get the picture.

When SEGA first released Sonic Unleashed (poetry unintended), I was obsessing over it on the SEGA forums. Like many fans of the time, I was, in my own way, still reeling from the massive wad of fail that SEGA had seen fit to dub Sonic the Hedgehog back in 2006. My own particular way of doing this might be identified by an adept psychologist as the root of all that is the Sonic Cycle: I was so fixated on the next game in the series being good that I was determined to see it as such. So, I villainized professional reviewers who derided the game (mind you, the IGN and GameSpot reviews are still embarrassingly bad at what they do, but my reasons for saying that now aren’t so biased). I churned out an overlong, overwordy review in defense of the game. To my credit, I acknowledged a number of its key flaws. But the tone of it was unmistakable: “I want this game to be good, so I’m saying that it’s good!”

…Which is exactly why I’m reviewing the game for a second time just now. Consider the above monologue a retraction of sorts.

But don’t misunderstand: I am not, per se, throwing my lot in with the likes of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw or IGN’s Hilary Goldstein. Quality isn’t so black-and-white that any game that isn’t “great” automatically gets filed away in the “fail” folder. Sonic Unleashed is, I realize, a sublimely average game that looks pretty and is only remarkable in any way because the Day Stage gameplay is unique to the franchise. Sonic is the only character to have played quite this way, so it’s impossible to say that “you can get this kind of gameplay from another game, only done better” — which is, I’m sure most would agree, the main reason why “average” games aren’t often worth playing.

The most obvious problems with this game are still the most obvious points that I brought up in my previous review: the Werehog stages that dominate the majority of gametime, and the gods-damned medals. The Werehog itself (let’s not waste time nitpicking the etymology of the word “Werehog” as if doing so is somehow clever or witty, ’kay?) is a bread-and-butter God of War clone, and the issue I mentioned above does indeed apply. You can get the same gameplay, done infinitely better, from other games (God of War, Dante’s Inferno, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and probably a number of others as well). It’s not quite what I’d call “bad,” it’s just wholly unremarkable and in no way unique enough to make up for it. Is it any surprise that players who had already been exposed to modern beat-‘em-ups lost interest so quickly?

The medals are a more fundamental issue, a classic case of collectible-based stage progression gone horribly wrong. You need to collect a specific number of Sun Medals and Moon Medals to unlock each successive stage in the game, and by the end of the game the requirements are unreasonably high. These medals are scattered throughout the stages, often in clever hiding places, and the majority of them are in the Werehog stages (which makes sense; the high-octane speed stages don’t exactly present the most optimal stage setup for exploration). The upshot is that you spend more time playing stages you’ve already finished than actually progressing to new content. Tedious design like this artificially lengthens playtime, and when playtime is lengthened in such a way, it inevitably leads to player frustration. This is unforgivably bad game design, and is the only flaw in this game that I honestly can’t find any valid defense for.

One complaint that often comes up when people talk about Sonic Unleashed is the hub-world, but I think this is more people projecting a lingering hatred of 2006’s Soleanna onto the world of Unleashed. This game’s hub world is both utterly unremarkable—completely average in every single way—and unobtrusive enough that it doesn’t matter whether it exists or not. I did defend this in my original review, but having played through the game again recently, I realize that for every ounce of charm this hub contains, it holds equal portions of “There is simply no reason you should give a crap.” You walk around quaint little town sections and talk to people. You walk around little stage-portal hubs and enter stages. There are a few collectibles sprinkled hither and thither, but not enough to eat up more than a few minutes of your time. Townsfolk sometimes give you missions to accomplish, some of which are good, most of which are pointless, none of which are worth complaining about, all of which are entirely optional. The hubs do the game no real credit, but neither do they do it any harm. They’re just… there. They exist, therefore they exist. And that’s all that the great sage and eminent orange soda addict, Solaris Paradox, has to say on the subject.

So, then, the real attraction here is those day stages I mentioned, right? I like ‘em, but having played them to death and gotten over the novelty, all I can say is that they make for a nice rush, but lack the spice of life. You know… that little aspect called “variety.” The most interesting thing that ever happens during a Day Stage is the ice level’s “Surprise! You’re in a bobsled!” segments, which are fun, brief, and the only spark of life that Sonic Unleashed has on offer in terms of stage design. (The designers must have realized this, because the bobsled returns for an encore in the game’s punishingly-difficult final stage.)

Each stage is, in essence, a slightly-more-challenging version of the previous: you run really, really fast, boost through tons of stuff, side-step a lot, occasionally drift through a turn (Sonic does play somewhat like a racecar in this regard), grind on too many rails, and spend a lot of time watching Sonic run through loops and corkscrews and other manner of “Yeowza, that’s awesome!” set-pieces, usually with the aid of more dash-pads than any Sonic the Hedgehog level should ever have, want, or need.  It’s a peculiar combination of gameplay and non-gameplay — if I had to peg the style introduced in Sonic Unleashed with any one key flaw, it would be an overemphasize on cinematics and an underemphasis on actual gameplay. The stages are flashy, linear, and, ultimately, too simplistic for their own good.

The Day Stages offer the “let’s try our darnedest to reel in the old-school crowd” gimmick of switching back-and-forth between a behind-the-back perspective and a 2D-sidescroller perspective. While this is a neat gimmick in theory, I don’t think Unleashed used it to its proper potential (Sonic Colors did so more admirably, but still has a ways to go). I’m talking, of course, of what makes Sonic work so well in 2D. You see, I have no aversion to speed-centric stage design in a 3D perspective. If anything, being able to see what’s in front of Sonic opens up new avenues for the designers to throw more and more complex stage designs at the player without slowing the pace of the level to do so. The 2D sections, however, are very much akin to Sonic Rush on the Nintendo DS; you boost, you occasionally use memorization to jump into a shortcut, score ring, or some such, and mostly you just see Sonic run. What works for Sonic in 2D is what worked for Sonic back in his 2D days: speed, physics, and platforming. Unleashed’s 2D segments contain far too much of one, not enough of another, and totally screw the pooch on the one in-between.

Optional and downloadable stages offer some of the variety that the main-story levels lack, but usually at the cost of making obvious some flaw in the gameplay that rarely, if ever, poses a problem in the main game (because it sticks to what the style actually does well). An optional level might offer an abundance of 3D platforming; this only succeeds in making Sonic’s less-than-optimal directional control more of a hindrance. An optional stage might offer a lot of 2D platforming; this only succeeds in exposing how jerky and uncontrollable his jumps are. An optional stage might involve a lot of 2D speed-jumping and reflex reaction; this only exposes how little time the 2D segments give you to react to things at all.

There are other issues I could go on about — I’m a particular fan of raging about how annoying the abundance of “quick-time events” are in this game (there’s a really drawn-out minigame that the player is forced to endure twice, which is nothing more or less than one long QTE), or how cheap the instant-kill QTEs, which litter optional levels and late-game story stages, can be. There’s the game’s over-reliance on bottomless pits, and alternately, water-running segments, which are bottomless pits that you can run over if you’re moving fast enough. There’s the story, which is actually decent, contrary to what you might have heard. There’s Chip, the game’s spritely one-off sidekick character (whether you find him charming, annoying, or simply “meh” like I do is a matter of personal taste).

The bottom line, however, is that what I saw in Sonic Unleashed when it came out was a game that is infinitely better than Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. What I see now is a game that is a massive step forward from ’06, but still a long ways from where the series needs to be to interest anyone who isn’t already a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s a game with potential but not enough worthwhile content, and with far too much other content that buries the underlying experience in a fog of mediocrity. It is, in short, what most of the non-cringeworthy naysay-reviews identified it as when it first came out.

I was just too much of a fanboy to notice at the time.

Ah, well, it’s like the song goes, right? “Live and learn…”

The above article was originally posted to SEGA HD on August 9, 2011.

In my Sonic Unleashed retrospective review, I droned on for a bit about how over the last few years, I grew up and started to see things differently — started to see how my previous views on some things were either too simplistic or, in this case, far too holier-than-thou… which is ironic, as I’m an atheist.

One-and-a-half of those reading this may remember an old rant video, which I made back when I was into that sort of thing on YouTube, a rant that raged about over-the-top sex appeal in videogames. I find myself in the awkward position of declaring yet another retraction, for the second article in a row… I am, honestly, no longer even slightly bugged by this aspect of videogames. No, seriously. I really couldn’t care less. I bet you clicked on this article expecting some scholarly dissertation on how game companies are whoring themselves out by exploiting the lowest common denominator with their hyper-emphasis on cleavage, fetish gear, and Team Ninja jiggle physics.

Surprise! This article swings for the other team.

“But Solaris, O great sage and eminent orange soda junkie,” I hear you cry, “what in the holy name of cowpatties does this have to do with SEGA?”

Bayonetta, wise guy. Now sit down and shut up.

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, though—I haven’t just given up and joined the droolers who only bought SoulCalibur IV because of how spectacularly Ivy’s top vomits on the laws of physics. Believe it or not, I actually do have a valid intellectual reason for this change of heart: at some point, I asked myself why this kind of thing is somehow bad, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. At least, not an answer that I couldn’t think of a good defense against.

There are, as a rule of thumb, three kinds of people who lash out at sex appeal in games. There are the prudes, who tend to exist outside of the gaming community more often than within it (example: Fox News… ‘nuff said). There are those—whether male or female themselves—who focus less on the sex appeal itself than what they perceive as a negative impact on women in our society… in other words, those channeling feminist ideals into their views on gaming. Then there are people like, well… me: people who at some point and for some reason decided that “standards” were more important than the logic behind the standards.

I don’t mean to boil things down to such basic ideas, though. Most people, I find, have some more complex mixture of ideas behind their views, and this is no exception. I was mostly Exhibit C, but I was also a bit of Exhibit B and, for a time when I was even younger and less world-wise than I am now (which is hard to imagine, actually), I was quite a bit of Exhibit A.

Oh, but now I need to bust out the ol’ fire extinguisher, because I get the feeling my little three-kinds-of-people speech just now offended all three of those types of people. In truth, the only people I intend to insult are the prudes. And that’s just me being spiteful because I can. I don’t mean to suggest that feminism or standards are, in and of themselves, bad things—I simply feel that in this case (both with regards to gaming and other forms of media), they are being mis-applied.

“But Solaris, O great sage and eminent Coca-Cola smoker,” you sigh, shaking your head in disappointment. “Do you really intend to suggest that the oversexifying of female characters does not have a negative impact on women in our society?”

Well, uh… yeah, actually. But this is going to take some explaining. You see, readers, I know the usual arguments well enough: overemphasizing this view of “sexy” puts too much pressure on women to conform to a certain standard, overemphasizing the idea of women as sex objects has a negative impact on how much respect men have for them as people, et cetera and so on and all that jazz. My problem is that none of these issues are actually about the sex appeal itself: they’re about the people who view it. It is perfectly possible for free-thinking men and women to play, watch, and enjoy these same “oversexified” media without any of the feared social problems occurring, and do you know why? Because all of these things are completely dependent on the maturity, intelligence, and worldviews of the person experiencing the media.

So, what, do we ban Rocky Road ice cream because a sizable chunk of our population never learned the definition of the word “moderation?” No. And I see no more reason to demonize sex appeal because a significant portion of our society is, for some reason or another, not mature enough for that “M” rating (or even the “T” one). Both maladies are curable via the same remedy: fix the brain behind the eyes, dammit. Instead of working to censor or demonize media that can potentially aggravate an existing problem with society, why not focus on mitigating the problem itself? I mean, I know it’s harder to have those oh-so-embarrassing heart-to-hearts with your kid when they hit puberty, but this is the root of a lot of societal issues. In this case as well as others, people are placing the blame on media rather than the people responsible for taking the ideas media presents and putting it into a mature and intelligent context.

An example of a mature and intelligent context? “The female form is a lovely thing. It is pleasing to look at. I enjoy looking at pleasing things. Is this particular portrayal unrealistic? YES, IT’S UNREALISTIC.” And that is all it takes to place sex appeal in a context that keeps one’s perception of the real world and society intact. And it’s almost identical to the line of reasoning that any vaguely intelligent person follows to determine that the wand-waving prestidigitation of the Harry Potter series is a case of fictional fun time and, ahem, not something you should be trying at home. It’s a very basic fact-and-fiction mentality that anyone should be capable of. Even if the subject matter isn’t as fanciful, making such logic a societal norm can’t be that hard!

“Alrighty, Solaris, O awesome sage and eminent Orange Sodaholics Anonymous flunkie,” you say. “You’ve said your bit about that, but what was that about my standards being bull?

…To which I say, that’s not what I said. Standards are a good thing, because quality is a good thing. The only reason anyone ever makes a quality product is because people want a quality product, and that’s standards in seedshell.  Giving up standards means giving up quality. But in this case, I have one simple problem with the way people view sex appeal in terms of standards: people tend to operate under the assumption that sex appeal is, in and of itself, an aspect of lesser quality. In fact, sex appeal is a victim of circumstance — it is entirely possible for a genuinely great game, such as Bayonetta, to verily explode with oversexification, while games that are complete and utter crap (Exhibit B in this case would be X-Blades, tho’ you’re free to insert any poorly-designed oogle-fest you like) are just as amorous. Sex appeal isn’t an aspect of lesser quality; it just happens to be easy to exploit regardless of quality.

It’s not unlike a licensed game based on a really good movie. Maybe the game is good. If so, more power to Electronic Arts; they managed not to suck this time! Maybe the game is bad, though. Is this the fault of Harry Potter? No. Is the blame then on licensed games in general? No. It’s because EA decided they were going to fail at life that day. Blaming Harry Potter for the failure of a licensed game that happens to include him would be silly. Following that logic, blaming overexcited jiggle physics and oversized mammaries for the bad game design that accompanies them is a classic case of missing the point. Don’t hate the sex appeal for how exploitable it is — hate the games that exploit it. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

There’s another side of the “standards” issue that boils my bladder, though, and mostly it boils it because I once thought this way myself. This side involves the idea that people who indulge in sex appeal or prioritize it in any way are lacking in standards. This is so snobbish that I can’t help but shake my head in dismay even thinking about it. “Standards” are about quality, not about the subject matter that entertains a person. Someone who enjoys television more than reading doesn’t necessarily lack taste. Someone who would rather listen to rock music than classical music doesn’t lack taste. Someone who would rather play a videogame than watch a movie doesn’t lack taste. Why, then, is someone who includes sex appeal in their list of gaming preferences automatically doing so in poor taste? It’s not a matter of “taste” or “standards” — it’s a matter of seeing something that isn’t for you and looking at it as “beneath” you.

There is a related point that should be addressed, here: much of this is aggravated by the perception that the people who buy games (or movies, or whatever) for the eye candy are immature or vulgar. Actually, it’s reversed: immature and vulgar people tend to gravitate toward this sort of thing. Once again, sex appeal itself is a misunderstood victim of circumstance.

Even having said all this, there is one point I made back in the day that I still at least partly defend: the portrayal of women as characters. I no longer feel any annoyance at the way women look in my games, but the way they act is another matter entirely. This isn’t even about sex appeal, though; Devil May Cry 4’s Kyrie would still be a squeaky little damsel in distress even if she wasn’t positively overflowing into her own dress. The problem with oversexified characters that are written poorly isn’t that they’re oversexified, it’s that they’re written poorly. Can sex appeal be used in interesting ways? Of course it can! The exaggerated “we’re pushing the envelope and laughing our own pants off as we do it” nature of Bayonetta even qualifies as some proof of that, and that’s before we even touch on using it as a theme all its own, the way Atlus does in the recently-released Catherine.

The funny thing is, I get the sense that a lot of people who badmouth sex appeal in gaming are actually thinking along the same lines as this article, and just wording it poorly. I think the difference is important enough that we — as the gaming community, and as a society in general — need to acknowledge it clearly. And not just for the sake of not being snobs about the games we play, either. I think that placing more emphasis on this distinction may just have a positive impact on the way society thinks in general.

I mean, will someone please think of the children? And not assume they’re all brain-dead morons incapable of independent thought? I think that would be a decent starting point for fixing almost every problem our society has, actually…

The above article was originally posted to SEGA HD on August 9, 2011.

Platforms: Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3
Developer: CyberConnect2 – Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Genre: Fighter
ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen (Ages 13 and up)

Before I get started, I just have to say that I love this game’s title like an armful of kittens. I mean, just look at it. “Shippuden” is already the subtitle for the anime series, but then the main series of videogames this belongs to gets the subtitle “Ultimate Ninja.” And then you realize that “Storm” is the subtitle for the sub-series that this game belongs to within the Ultimate Ninja series. And on top of that, you have a sequel number. And no, I did not intentionally label this game in an ungraceful way. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja: Storm 2 is actually the way the game’s title appears in the copyright blurbs within the game itself.

I just find clumsy, gallumphing titles like that amusing. Call it my personal nerdish quirk.

But I digress. Although I’ve played some underwhelming anime tie-in games in my day, I find that they have a tendency to turn out better than other licensed titles — pretty much any licensed game ever developed by Electronic Arts, for example. Even so, they’re rarely anything to write home about. The Naruto series in particular had been (and maybe still is, I quit following the channel ages ago) a favorite lolcow of X-Play and a series most fervently hated-upon by many within the circles I hang around out here on ye good olde Internets.

Myself? I’ve always been a bit of a fan, actually — of the manga and anime, I mean. They aren’t the best, but they’re fun and entertaining enough for this anime enthusiast. Hell, once you get past the fact that HE’S NOT A NINJA GRRRRRAAAAAARRRR NERD RAAAAAAAGE!!!!!11!!1!ONE!!!!, you may just find that the characters and plotlines are actually quite engaging… overuse of flashback-exposition notwithstanding.

In terms of how well this game puts forward the story of its source material, the closest comparison out of the games I’ve played in the past would have to be Dragon Ball Z: Budokai, but Storm 2 is arguably much better in the story-presentation department than any of the Dragon Ball Z games I’ve played. Graphically and in terms of story, Storm 2 is quite like playing the first few major arcs of Naruto Shippuden with only a few important plot points left undeveloped and with (oddly enough) better animation and art quality than the majority of the anime series. And as a game, it’s not half-bad, either.

Now, before I go on, I want to be clear on one thing: I never had an opportunity to play the PlayStation 3 exclusive Storm 1, which covered the Naruto anime straight through from the beginning to Naruto’s showdown with Sasuke Uchiha (which marks the point where Naruto breaks off via three-year time-skip and becomes Naruto Shippuden). I know enough about the series to say that Storm 2 picks up after that time-skip, where Storm 1 left off. Playing both games back-to-back should give players a good alternative means to experience the entire Naruto saga from the beginning and on through to the end of the “Pain” arc, which covers the majority of the series so far. Not counting the abundance of filler in the anime or the various movies, that is. As for which of the two games is superior to the other, and in what ways one outshines the other, I haven’t the foggiest.

Storm 2‘s main attraction, I would guess, is its rather substantial single-player campaign. I’ll say this right now: I quite like it, both in terms of how well the story is told and how the gameplay elements tie together. It isn’t perfect, and can definitely use some fine-tuning in the overworld and RPG-elements department, but this is what fighting games need more of. I mean, think about it. “Arcade Mode” is nice, but on its own, obsolete. It’s designed for brief pick-up-and-play-at-the-arcade by-the-quarter stints, not dedicated single-player marathons. Too many fighting games have I played that either tack a one-or-two-scene “story” onto an arcade mode (see Super Street Fighter IV) or include a so-called “story” mode that is little more than a brief and insubstantial series of fights with a flimsy text-crawl story that does nothing but absolutely nothing. (I’m looking at SoulCalibur IV as I type this).

Storm 2 tells its story in a seven-chapter RPG-like mode in which the first batch of major story arcs following the events of Storm 1 are told with nearly as much grace as the manga and anime they originate from. The Naruto world is brought to life fairly well, in the form of pre-rendered backgrounds that the player explores in the style of the PlayStation 1 Final Fantasy games. By itself this is nothing remarkable; it’s actually the graphics that sell this so well. The cell-shaded character and object models are beautiful to behold atop these backdrops, which are drawn in the kind of painted style of inanimate anime backgrounds — an artstyle that the game even manages to carry into its occasional three-dimensional overworld areas, as well as into its battle arenas.

This overworld isn’t terribly interesting when you consider how it functions. Mostly it just provides a few arbitrary RPG and inventory elements that you’ll either make some minor use of or ignore completely. There are a nice assortment of side-missions to undertake, but the player doesn’t actually gain the freedom to play most of these — or to choose which characters they use in battles — until after the main story is complete. For the most part, it does what it’s supposed to: it ties the fights together and gives the game the breathing room it needs to tell its story in a cohesive way.

 

Fights themselves are fast-paced and fun, though they lack the depth and balance of more “hardcore” fighting titles. The game uses a three-dimensional behind-the-back style of play similar to the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi games. Despite being perhaps a bit too simplistic and playing host to some blatantly overpowered characters, it captures the over-the-top action feel of the Naruto series to a T. My primary complaint is difficulty. The story mode is far too easy for the first half of the game, to the point where I spent most of my time spamming special moves with impunity and getting through without so much as a bump to the head. Once the difficulty does pick up, a few obvious flaws with the game’s mechanics come to light.

For starters, the evasion mechanic, “Substitution” (whereby the characters dodge by pressing the block button at the instant an attack hits) is far too finicky for the player to pull off, yet far too easy for the computer to abuse. This gives the computer yet one more unfair advantage over human players (on top of the usual — you know, being able to instantly block almost EVERYTHING with the reflexes of a goddamn Jedi, and so on), making single-player gameplay a pain in the butt during post-story sidequests or when the CPU difficulty in Free Battle mode is set higher than average. As a general issue, in both single-player and multiplayer, special attacks and ultimate attacks are far too spammable in spite of the game’s chakra gauge, since there isn’t really the sort of limiter that games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 put on such attacks. They are, at least, much more dodgable than the ones in that game, but the old-school spirit of Hadouken-spamming lives on full-force in this one, and then some.

Speaking of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, this game does use a similar team mechanic. Unfortunately, it lacks the ability to “tag-in” other team members for direct control; the two supporting characters you choose will always be strictly there for support moves. This is interesting once you master how best to use it, as different characters have their own unique uses as back-up, which range from attack-based to defense-based to someplace in the middle. The more you use your assists, the more your “Team Gauge” will fill up, and as you fill more of it, your assist characters will start helping you automatically. Some of them will stand between you and the enemy as you charge chakra, or will attack your enemy of their own volition at no cost to you; once or twice, I was saved from certain death by an assist character who automatically jumped between me and an oncoming ultimate attack, taking the fall in my place. There is, of course, the obligatory “team ultimate” attack once you fill your gauge to the max, but that one explains itself.

Of course, just like that other game with the team mechanic, you’ll often find your opponents blindsiding you with a constant deluge of assist moves as you move to the higher difficulties, which is an aggravating, if not entirely cheap, aspect of the assist system.

By far the most annoying aspect of the fights is exclusive to the story mode’s main boss battles, however. As some of the hallmark fights in the story get far too wild or cinematic in nature to be contained within the confines of a fighting game, Naruto Storm 2 resorts to the most lowbrow, cop-out method of presenting these epic battle sequences: it interrupts its bosses with drawn-out quick-time events. These scenes are epic, and to its credit, the game’s QTEs aren’t overly difficult (they aren’t even randomized; memorization will work, if all else fails), and they only ever shave off a chunk of heath when you screw them up. All the same, the time limits on some of the QTEs are brutal and I often found myself scraping by within an instant of failure.

With one annoyance comes a hint of awesome, though. These same boss fights feature some good gameplay variety, with the bosses (and sometimes, the player’s character itself) busting out some massive transformations that keep the action feeling fresh. One or two of these segments are a bit frustrating until you get the method down, but it never gets obnoxious enough to kill the “wow” factor.

The story itself is done just enough justice for the subject matter. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the first four-or-five story arcs following Naruto‘s three-year time skip were some pretty gripping stuff in the first place. The voicework can be a bit stiff or cheesy at times, and the lip-syncing doesn’t even try to match the English lines, but the presentation overall is like watching an anime movie. Most of the time, like watching a particularly epic one.

A good chunk of the story is tied up in fixed-camera textbox dialogue (both with and without accompanying voices), but even the more pointless side-mission story scenes are presented in an amusing way, and all of the Naruto characters are perfectly spot-on in terms of personality. For a fan of the series, I can’t imagine it doing much better than it has. For newcomers, I can maybe picture one or two out of ten getting into the series through this game. Possibly.

There are a couple of places where (for, I suppose, the sake of brevity), a major scene or subplot lacks the punch or relevance it had in the source material. A major example would be Naruto’s new squadmate, Sai, whose motivation and character background go completely unexplained, and who just comes off as weird because of it. Those who play the game without knowing the story behind such things may spend a bit of time scratching their head with dumb looks on their faces. If you find yourself in such a state while playing the game, my recommendation is this: rock thee a Wiki.

In any event, someone at Capcom should play this story mode and pack a notebook. The next Marvel vs. Capcom game could take some good things from Storm 2.

Apart from the story mode, the usual bits and bobs are here: an offline versus mode, with both one-on-one and team-battle modes; an online mode; titles and avatar images to unlock; Achievements to hoard. The game contains a large roster of off-the-wall “those guys so totally aren’t ninja” fighters to play as, including just about every character from this chunk of the Naruto series in each of their individual bubbles of glory. The characters from the previous story arcs, such as Zabuza and Haku, are sadly absent. As a curious addition, one of the unlockable characters is Lars from the Tekken series, beautifully rendered in cell-shaded anime form. I… have no comment, not being a Tekken buff, but for what it’s worth, hey, I’ll take it.

Every character in the game captures the style and spirit it should in its own unique way, and none of them is so underpowered as to be useless. There are, however, a few that are vastly overpowered in some way or another. In the game’s defense, this is mostly their movesets and transformations being a little too loyal to the source material for their own good. I can see it being a real problem when you hit the online mode, though.

The long and short of it is this. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja: Storm 2 is practically a must-play for any Naruto fan, and may be worth a rental for anyone who’s interested in the series but hasn’t gotten too deep into it yet. It’s fast, fun, and a worthy adaptation of what are, in this reviewer’s opinion, some of Naruto‘s best stories so far. And for those who know and love the world of Naruto already, it’s like spending the weekend with old friends.

I mean, c’mon. Nothing beats that.

Platform: Sony PlayStation 2 – Developer/Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Action/Adventure – ESRB Rating: “M” for Mature (Ages 17 and up)

As with other creative mediums, the videogame design process can take some surprising turns. It’s not exactly a secret that the innovative, stylish mix of swordswingin’ and gunslingin’ action that gamers ’round the world now know and love as Devil May Cry wasn’t originally supposed to be Devil May Cry, or even the start of a new franchise, at all. The air-combo, gun-juggling action game we received was conceived entirely by accident during the drawn-out trial-and-error development process that was Capcom’s effort to create Resident Evil 4; that they would go through at least one other fleshed-out design idea (the well-known “Resident Evil 3.5” build, as seen on YouTube) is a testament to how many stops and starts this process was plagued by. But every cloud has a silver lining, says the optimist, and so the silver lining to this cloud was the start of a groundbreaking new series… one that has somehow managed to have one of gaming history’s most inconsistent track records with franchise quality, in the space of just four games.

The core driving force behind the sense of style that Devil May Cry lives and breaths by is nothing more or less than the word “cool.” The player takes the role of Dante, an incredibly badass Devil Hunter who in the game’s opening scene is impaled on his own sword, blasted with Force Lightning, and then has a motorcycle thrown at him by a scantily-clad demon woman–only to deflect the motorcycle with a pair of rapid-fire handguns, shrug off a sword through the gut as if t’was but a flesh wound, and establish himself as one of gaming’s baddest of badasses before we even knew more than three breaths’ worth of backstory about him. Clad in a long red coat and sporting that patently Japanese white hairstyle, this dual-handgun-toting swordsman was cool. And then we got to experience the creepy, gothic island castle that served as the gameworld, and then the blood-pumping combo-based combat… and at that point, I think almost everyone who played Devil May Cry when it first hit the PS2, before other more refined games of its ilk became the norm, was irredeemably hooked.

Players who take a short trip back in time from this console generation to experience the birth of the franchise, however, will likely see another side of the story–as is the case with many older games. Despite being a fresh and addictive experience for its time, Devil May Cry hasn’t aged well at all, and its design may seem lackluster or overly simplistic to newcomers.

Story-wise, the game doesn’t have much to tell: Dante is attacked by a mysterious woman who knows of his demonic lineage and who wants Dante’s help to stop the lord of the underworld from breaking through to the human world and making life as we know it a literal hell. This woman, Trish, happens to be the spitting image of Dante’s dead mother, for whose murder he seeks vengeance. To some extent, mostly in the names of Dante and his supposedly-dead brother Vergil, the story is a reference to Dante’s Inferno, but it never really bothers to press the point. It’s just kind of “there.” There aren’t many story scenes in the game at all, actually. The opening provides a reason and basic motivation for the player to be exploring the castle on Mallet Island (that’s pronounced ma-lay, by the way), you fight a lot of demons, find a lot of MacGuffins to unlock your way forward, fight a boss, fight that boss a few more times, and then fight another boss a couple of times. Eventually the bad guy shows himself and you play the game the same way you’ve been playing it all along (kill demons, find MacGuffins, fight rehashed boss battles…) until the game remembers it has a story again. That’s not a bad thing, per se; the pace of the game remains more or less brisk enough to keep you interested, and what story there is gets a passing grade. It does what it has to, and despite how obviously “early PS2” the graphics and animation are, is presented well. If you can deal with the sometimes-kinda-bad voice acting, lack of decent facial animation, and Trish’s rock-stiff cleavage, you’ll probably enjoy it. If nothing else, it does what a videogame story is meant to do: it gives the character a reason to advance to the next area.

I wouldn’t really recommend Devil May Cry to players who dislike having their posteriors lopped off and handed to them on a platter every so often, because although other games would eventually come along and make this game look like a piece of cake, it’s not exactly a walk in the park, either. Someone who’s used to the gameplay might blow through without much trouble, but I think it was around the first boss battle that every first-timer back in the day had to grit their teeth and try their damndest not to throw the console at the cat. Devil May Cry doesn’t screw around, and it can sometimes catch you off guard with how much damage you’ll take when you get hit, especially in those early stages before you’ve powered up your health bar a few times. There is an unlockable “Easy Automatic” difficulty in there for people who want a more “comfortable” hack-and-slash, but you have to die a few times in Normal Mode to get it. Being asked if you want to switch to Easy Automatic is kind of like getting stuck in a chess match and suddenly being asked by one of your Rooks if you’d like him to take over for you.

The fun factor is all in the combat; it’s literally the only aspect of the game’s design that is done well. Something about the smoothness of Dante’s swordplay and gunwork, about the simple pleasure of batting an enemy into the air with a melee weapon and holding them aloft on a cushion of bullets, is just so exhilerating. In this reviewer’s opinion, no other stylish-action series has ever brought a combat system quite so fun to the table, then or now–although Dante’s arsenal of weapons and combat moves in this first installment isn’t as impressive as current-gen players may be accustomed to. The player begins with the meat and potatoes of the Devil Hunter’s lunchbox: a basic sword with a basic melee combo, and Dante’s custom handguns, “Ebony” and “Ivory.” As the player progresses through the game, Dante will acquire a number of more impressive weapons, including a massive electric sword, flaming gauntlets that provide extremely powerful martial arts capabilities, a shotgun, a grenade launcher, and a third sword that plays exactly the same as the other two with only minor differences (this last is, for the most part, an extremely cool but marginally useless plot object). Supplementing the arsenal of weapons is an arsenal of abilities, mainly attack moves (although one or two miscellaneous utility talents are mixed among them) that the player can purchase from magic statues scattered across the island. The currency: red, crystalline orbs that are actually the solidified blood of your slaughtered foes. Classy.

One of the coolest abilities that Dante possesses, unlocked upon finding your first enchanted melee weapon, is to temporarily assume what is called a “Devil Trigger” super form. Both the lightning sword, Alastor, and the flaming gauntlets, Ifrit, grant Dante a new tranformation with their own special attacks and advantages. What some players may not know, if they happened to completely ignore the handguns for the whole of the game after getting their hands on a bigger gun, is that these forms also super-charge Ebony and Ivory, temporarily rendering them as close to overpowered as anything ever gets in this game. It’s an extremely cool feeling, going all “Angry Time” and blowing through an army of demon marrionettes as if they were made of butter instead of wood.

Enemy variety is quite good, with exception to boss fights. You have your standard marrionette-type enemies in a number of flavors, which shamble around in a distinctly Resident Evil zombie kind of way, which comprise the rank and file of Mallet Island’s “mook” population. Then you have quite a few enemy types that will give you no end of trouble, such as the scissor-wielding grim-reaper-like wraiths you encounter early on, as well as armored lizard men, sabre-toothed tigers made of pure shadow, giant rock-scorpions, and my personal ironic “favorite,” the nigh-invincible “Frost” demons introduced in the final missions of the game.

The game’s boss demons aren’t nearly as varied. There are a grand total of four boss demons, not counting the final battle, and each of these four bosses will be fought at least three times by the end of the game. One of these bosses can actually suck you into a nightmare battle arena where, during each subsequent encounter with this boss, you are forced to fight one of the other bosses yet again to return to your regularly scheduled showdown. Now, nothing against the bosses themselves–they’re all really good bosses in their own ways–but fighting each of them three or four times per playthrough? Kinda gets a little old after a while.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design is neither as innovative nor as impressive as its combat. The time spent not fighting is usually spent exploring the castle or its surrounding areas, which are all beautifully rendered and even now look quite good, considering this is early PS2 fare we’re talking about. Exploring the castle consists mostly of hunting down those MacGuffins I mentioned, various items which, while they look pretty and sound cool in your inventory screen, are all just basic keys used to unlock your way forward. This is often called “puzzle-solving,” but as there’s no real puzzle element to it, I refuse to address it as such. This fundamental holdover from the Resident Evil series was a passable design aspect in that series for the first two or three games; by the time you complete Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, you’re probably sick of it; but here, in this more action-based genre, it just seems like a cop-out. I feel like the designers should have been more inventive about how the player navigates the island than making nearly everything a key-hunting affair.

Speaking of Resident Evil holdovers, the entire game, combat or otherwise, is viewed from cinematic fixed-camera perspectives that are constantly snapping to and from different angles as you move throughout the environments. This can be very disorienting (in that you may lose your sense of direction and because it screws with movement control something righteous), and while it’s not usually a major issue, can result in the player taking a few cheapshots during combat. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, though. After a while, adjusting your sense of direction or not changing your heading with the analog stick (so that Dante just keeps moving in the direction he was already going) become second nature. But when a design element requires the player to take time adjusting solely because there’s an element of player inconvenience to surmount, it’s certainly worthy of criticism. This is an issue that would only be somewhat mitigated in subsequent series entries; even in Devil May Cry 4, the camera is still a bit annoying to negotiate with.

One of the most awkward aspects of exploration, however, is the jump mechanic. This is actually for two basic reasons: first, because of the fixed camera, it’s often hard to aim jumps properly. On those occasions when the game is actually trying something more interesting than a generic key-hunt for its exploration segments, this issue becomes really obvious and highly cumbersome. The other issue is that Dante just can’t jump very far, despite having more height to his jump than any human being should ever be able to attain. If the player is willing to invest a large sum of Red Orbs in the upgrade, the lightning sword’s moveset contains a double-jump, but it’s not as useful as one might think.

The game is short, especially by today’s standards, running maybe four-to-six hours per playthrough depending on how fast the player is or how many of the game’s secrets are found. I wouldn’t count this against the game at this point in time, though, since Devil May Cry can typically be found in your local GameStop bargain bin for a whopping sum of seven dollars. It’s divided into a number of stages called “Missions,” but (environmental obstacles notwithstanding), one is usually free to backtrack and explore all of the island’s environments no matter what mission one is currently playing. In addition to these missions, players who are either obsessive about exploration or have a GameFAQs walkthrough on hand will find a series of stupidly well-hidden “Secret Missions” that require Dante to achieve some tricky and/or infuriating trick or objective in order to gain a valuable reward. When I say “stupidly well-hidden,” I mean “you have no chance in Hell of finding most of these without that walkthrough, so you might as well print it out and tape it to your TV stand.” And when I say tricky and/or infuriating, I mean that I gave up trying to complete some of these years ago, and never looked back.

Despite its shortness, the addictive nature of the combat is supplemented by some decent extras for a healthy dose of replay value. Repeat playthroughs will reward the player with additional, harder difficulty modes. The highest level of challenge on offer is the series staple “Dante Must Die” mode, in which not only are enemies immensely harder to kill, but capable, if they aren’t dispatched within a certain amount of time, of assuming super-modes in which they are nearly invincible. Completing the game’s Hard Mode earns the player a costume swap the turns Dante into his father, the Legendary Dark Knight Sparda, complete with his own rockin’ battle theme. (This also grants the player a katana called Yamato and replaces Ebony and Ivory with the handguns “Luce” and “Ombra,” although this is, like Sparda himself, a simple costume swap and serves no functional purpose.)

Completionists are encouraged to replay the game’s missions on the various difficulties to improve their “Devil Hunter Rank” for each one (a standard grading system), although I have a small problem with the way it’s handled in this game. Unlike the typical ranking systems of more recent entries in this franchise and others, which display a number of score items that make clear exactly what is expected of the player to achieve the best rank, Devil May Cry just gives you a rank and your Red Orb payout for however well you did. It’s obvious that the game’s combo style indicator factors into this somehow, but even the way the game determines how good your combos are is a bit on the sketchy side (I often found my combo rank dropping back to the bottom level during combat for no reason I could really fathom, as I seemed to be fighting just fine). Apart from that, there are other tricks involved in getting a good ranking, such as intentionally using weaker weapons (sticking to your basic starting sword and handguns is considered by the game to be a mark of skill). It’s very “Guide Dang It” in that way, and less dedicated players may not want to bother with it.

Your reward for sweeping the board with S-Ranks is “Super Dante,” which is essentially an infinite Devil Trigger cheat. Something cool to play around with, but once you’ve got all of the S-Ranks, you’ve done all there is to do, so it’s more of an achievements-before-there-were-Achievements “bragging rights” ordeal.

I’m not one to bother with higher difficulties or S-Rank challenges in this kind of game, though. I was happy to just coast through Normal whenever the mood struck me, snapping up every hidden health-bar- or Devil-Trigger-gauge boost item I could track down along the way (kleptomaniac that I be). Devil May Cry is just a fun ride to me, that kind of game that’s sufficiently addictive that I can play through it once or twice a year and still have nearly as much fun as I did the first time ’round.

It hasn’t weathered the test of time as well as one would like, and it’s by no means the best title of its kind, but it is the first. Even if one finds Devil May Cry too short or basic for one’s liking, there’s no denying the debt that the action genre owes Dante and his obsession with killing things in the most unnecessarily flashy way imaginable. Devil May Cry‘s pioneering of the “stylish action” game would, by and by, contribute to the birth of a number of other franchises that took what this game began and made it even better. It would also spawn a number of bland, generic knock-offs. What no one could have expected at the time was that one of those bland, generic knock-offs would be the first direct sequel to Devil May Cry itself… and easily one of the most disappointing games of all time.

But that’s a wall of text for another day, I think.

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