Tag Archive: Review

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!


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.

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.