Monday, January 26, 2009

Exciting Menu Action!

I have a confession to make; I've never liked Japanese role-playing games. Or any turn-based RPGs for that matter. While I can appreciate the aesthetics, story, characters, and narrative of something like, say Final Fantasy 6, I just couldn't ever get into the game mechanics. They always felt like a strategy board game ungracefully combined with a movie or TV series. You want to see what happens on the next episode of Lost? Grind through a few dozen encounters in a dungeon first. Not exactly a match made in heaven.

Making matters worse, these games tend to be very long and drawn out. I could put up with a bit of turn-based combat in order to drive forward a story, but only if it's done in moderation. A 20-30 hour RPG would be about as much as I could take before things start to feel woefully padded.

Still, I've always appreciated the narratives and aesthetics the genre is known for, and have always wanted to like the genre more. I even bought all the PS2 era Megaten games in the hopes that one day I would get into them, and was worried that by the time that day came, they'd be even rarer and harder to find (though amazingly, unexpectedly, and selfishly disappointing to me, Atlus has reprinted Digital Devil Saga and Nocturne making my collection decrease in value. But hey, I'm just glad this'll give them the availability to start making more, higher budget games). I played all these game for somewhere between 9-18 hours, enjoyed them a bit, then got bored and daunted by how much further I had to go, and lost interest. Persona 3 was the game I got furthest in after 18 hours. I just beat the second month's boss, so I still have a good entry point for if and when I choose to return to it.

In a previous blog entry, I wrote about how games don't necessarily have to be fun all the time. How I didn't enjoy the sailing in Wind Waker until I went back to it year's later and viewed it as it was, a sailing sim, rather than what I wanted it to be; a traditional controllable videogame vehicle. So I decided to was high time I return to my most uninterested in genres and give it another go. This time, with critic's darling, Persona 4.

90 min in...

These impressions are severely limited as I haven't even arrived at my first battle and the game has yet to begin proper. I was disappointed by Persona 3, due to it being such a slow burner (and then later a drawn-out slog), so I went into P4 with much different expectations. I was expecting lots of text, load screens, low-res character models, some mediocre voice-acting, and perhaps my most hated of all RPG staples; the silent protagonist. What I didn't expect would be for it all to be this good.

I still prefer games where I have a little more control of the situation. Where I'm not bogged down by menus and text at nearly all times. But for what it is (i.e. not my usual thing), I can appreciate that almost every single element contained within is done well. (Except for maybe the voice-acting, which is just the right amount of mediocre hit-and-miss that I can never decide if I should turn it off or not. It can be painful at times, but somehow the game just feels lacking without it. Oh, how I long for the return of the original Japanese voice-acting with English subtitles).

The atmosphere and art style are superb, but that was to be expected after Persona 3. What I didn't expect was for the writing to be so strong. From what I played of Persona 3, it felt like a rather generic Buffy/Harry Potter clone. The characters were moderately likable, but too shallow to muster up any sort of real attachment to. The strange thing about Persona 4 is that the characters are all basically recreations of the cast from Persona 3. You still have the silent male protagonist, the spunky female best friend/Hermione type, the insecure wannabe stud who has a crush on said female best friend, and the more traditionally attractive, but less cute and lovable, taller, older, more mature girl. So yeah, it's basically the same cast to a tee, But from the little I've been able to glean so far, they're all far more unique and dynamic than their P3 counterparts. Chie is more immature, tomboyish and aggressive than Yukari from P3, Yosuke is less confident and even more insecure than Junpei, and Yukiko is shyer and less cold than Mitsuru.

The art direction has seen a subtle, yet elegant improvement as well. I like the lonely, rural country setting and the Psychonauts-esque inside-of-character's-heads based dungeon themes looks promising. The first encounter the gang has with this parallel dimension was equal parts creepy and funny, a huge step up from the Giles from Buffy-esque professor from P3 merely explaining to you how it's your destiny to fight shadows. Yawn. I was also quite fond of the dream sequence your characters has on a foggy brick road. Wonderfully surreal stuff!

The plot too, is far more interesting than it has any right to be. The way the gang is slowly pulled into this old fashioned whodunnit involving scandal and murder is expertly told, and I've heard that you have to actually solve the case yourself to get the "good" ending; a gaming conceit that has me very, very, excited.

One thing I'm still not too thrilled about is the silent protagonist. I understand that they want the player to identify with him by leaving him a blank slate, but I feel like it has the opposite effect as I wouldn't be that quiet given the situation. it's not that bad, as he is given some choice to speak up, even if it's never recorded. Still, I find myself caring far more for the other characters. I guess that's okay too, but having a little more attachment to the person I'm supposed to be embodying would only enhance the experience, I find.

The worst thing I can say abut Persona 4 at this juncture is that I've probably spent nearly as long writing this article as I have playing it, which leads me to believe that it's more fun to think about than it is to play. But so be it. I'm getting some form of enjoyment from it, and that's more than I expected. Now, to play it some more and see where it leads...
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