It's all wonderfully anime and goofy and cliche, and it's all fun and games until someone releases an ancient Japanese god to unleash chaos upon our communication-lacking world.
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Ultimax is a great arena to cut your teeth in, but there’s no master here to show you the ropes. That’s not really a complain about Ultimax specifically, it’s something all fighting games need to work on, but it feels like this game, with its cross-genre appeal and a story mode that’s ripe for teaching and guaranteed to be played by beginners, would be the perfect place for a real tutorial. Ultimax is a great game for fighting game fans and people who want to put in the effort to learn the game. It’s not a compromise, and anyone who’s only in it for the Persona elements is in for a nasty ultra suplex.
Commander Citrine Shepard of the SSV Normandy didn’t have time for romance. To her, the characters who wanted to jump her bones were boring, flat, and occasionally psychotic. Thane was clearly on a suicidal rebound after the death of his wife, Jacob may as well have been a computer terminal that hung out in the weapons lab, and Garrus was just a friend. Not to mention Samara was the virgin mary and the commander would feel like a predator by responding to Yeoman Chambers’ repeated requests for a consequence-free night. Either way, this was a suicide mission goddamnit. No time for fun or games or trying to figure out how you would even get Garrus’s armor off in the first place.
I mean, isn’t that thing like fused to his body at this point? Have you ever seen him wear a t-shirt?
In real life though, Commander Shepard didn’t romance anyone because the player (me) wasn’t interested in the handful of options presented. Personally, Tali seemed like a fun character to interact with, and I like her rapport with my Shepard. It seemed a shame she couldn’t be romanced by a Shepard of either gender. So, I rolled a male Shepard on another run just to see what happened.
I was just as bored with her romance as I was with everyone else’s.
Bioware games are often hailed as some of the best written games of all time, with fantastic characters and, of course, romantic options. Unfortunately, those romantic options fall flat more often than not. Just be nice to a character, and eventually they’ll want to jump your bones. Then, you’re treated to a sexless sex scene and go on with your game, only ever thinking about it when the character mentions your night together in passing.
The problem is that there isn’t a lot of space in Mass Effect, or even any Bioware game, to develop a relationship past the surface level one presented to you. Tali might grow as a character after you complete her loyalty missions and see how she acts in dire situations, but your relationship with her never goes beyond a commander-subordinate or friend-friend, unless you flip the magic switch that makes her super physically attracted to you.
Dating sims excel at growing a believable relationship between you and another character because that’s all they do. You only get to have actual conversations with your partner characters in Mass Effect between missions, the meat of the game. Essentially, it’s a matter of where the gameplay focus is. If the gameplay focus is romance, you need to make it work. If it’s shooting aliens with fireballs, romance is probably a secondary concern.
That’s not to say what Bioware does isn’t admirable. Their characters are spectacular, and it’s easy to see why people want to fall in love with any of them. Garrus is charmingly awkward, Tali is sweet and kind, Jacob is...uh...well, you get the gist. There’s the secondary problem of the odd selection of characters you’re given to romance. There are always complaints that certain characters’ romances are exclusive to one gender, or that some characters aren’t romanceable at all.
In fact, Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider addressed this in a blog post recently. He mentioned that people are always disappointed, either in the romances themselves or the selection of available romances. He says he’s been accused of having an agenda by fans angry that their character didn’t get picked. And he answers the burning question that’s been scorching my tongue since the Tali romance annoyed me so much, why not drop them entirely?
Gaider says that Bioware’s strength is in their character writing. That romances are a Bioware signature, something unique that they do that almost every other major game developer can’t even get started on, let alone get right. Gaider asks what they could replace romances with? Whatever it is, he says, had better be “damned good.”
And I’m inclined to agree with Gaider, if only because other romantic “options” fall flat on their faces. Maybe Bioware doesn’t nail the romantic part of the equation, or even the choice part super well, but they do make characters you want to fall in love with. I’ve never seen another game with characters that even get close to approaching that.
The Persona games feature various romantic options as “social links”, relationships you can build to give you a boost in battle. The problem is, there’s really no choice to them. Sure, you can pick better options that’ll please your chosen paramour, but at the end of the day, as long as you talk to them enough, they’ll go out with you. Persona 4 doesn’t even penalize you for cheating on your girlfriends. You could be dating the entire town, and no one even bats an eye. And trust me, they all know, it’s a tiny town.
Fire Emblem: Awakening’s shipping mechanic, in which you pair off characters to increase their stats and create new units from their children is less about romance and more about playing matchmaker god. Pick who goes with who, and as long as they’re compatible, they’ll pop out a kid for your army. No choices, no mess, no fuss. It’s like chess, but you can pick the pieces up and make them kiss until a new piece magically appears.
Even games that feature romantic interests for their protagonists without the illusions of choice tend to be lame. Uncharted’s Elena exists mostly to shrug and look annoyed whenever protagonist Nathan Drake quips after slaughtering a village of mercenaries. Most of the time, we don’t even get to to know the love interests. Shadow of the Colossus starts with the death of Mono, Wander’s beloved, and we have to help rescue her. Dishonored begins with the murder of the empress, and then eventually gets around to telling the player that oh yeah, turns out she and Corvo were totally getting it on in the bedroom and you should probably take this whole thing more personally.
That’s mostly a quirk of writing though. Revenge is an easy motivation for the slaughter of thousands, and games tend to have less than stellar writing, simply because they need to put their priorities into making something that plays well. Obviously, there are plenty of games that buck the trend, but when you combine stilted writing and the illusion of romantic choice, you’re just asking for disaster.
Very few games nail both sides of that equation Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story is a visual novel with dating sim elements, and has two spectacularly well-written paths for its romanceable characters. Of course, they’re the only two characters in the game, and since it’s a visual novel, it lives and dies by its writing. Unfortunately though, it’s not the standard. Most of the time we have games like Persona, with great writing, but sort of lackluster “romance” elements, or Fire Emblem, with an interesting romance system, but a lack of real options.
Seriously, the fact that Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn’t let you ship the male cast with each other is a crying shame, especially considering the way some of them act around each other.
But, romantic options are here to stay, simply because they’re popular, and for good reason. We like having choices, we like to customize our experience. Also, some consumers really like the idea that they’ll get a PG 13 sex scene at some point during the game. But, they might just keep feeling half-hearted, at least for a little bit.
Big-budget, AAA titles don’t prioritize fantastic writing, because it’s not something they think their core audience cares about. Similarly, they tend to avoid having same-sex relationships in games because they want to remain “uncontroversial”. Due to budget and time concerns, It’s harder for smaller indie games, which often have the space to prioritize good writing, to have significant romantic options if that isn’t the whole point of their game, like in Analogue. Like it or not Bioware really is the only studio with a big budget behind them who tries to have significant romantic options at all in a game that isn’t about romance. Maybe Intelligent Systems will try harder with their next Fire Emblem though. Hopefully they learn from their mistakes, because man, I ship Chrom and Frederick so hard.
Between Akira, Godzilla, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the Shin Megami Tensei games, Tokyo can’t quite seem to catch a break in Japanese media. Like seeing the broken Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, the ruins of post-apocalypse Tokyo are a symbol that the world can never be the same. It’s also inevitable. If it’s Japanese and the world is being destroyed, Tokyo is going to be destroyed; gruesomely, and often with a strong message about nuclear weapons.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is the fouth (or fifth, depending who you ask) in a series of games that delight in destroying Tokyo, only to rebuild it and destroy it again for the next instalment in the franchise. But this time, the game doesn’t being in Tokyo pre or post-apocalypse. Instead it begins in the pastoral Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a feudal nation divided into castes that has no ties to Tokyo, Japan, or any nation on earth, really. People speak in a dialect that can only be described as Shakespearean, the knights are called Samurai (pronounced SAW-moo-rai, which only gets more infuriating as the game goes on), and demons spill out of a hole in the ground known as Naraku.
Okay, so maybe there’s a bit of Japan in there.
Your character is made a Samurai at the beginning of the game, and given a gauntlet they can use to negotiate with the demons in Naraku and summon them in battle. It’s almost like Pokémon, except the demons are far more disposable. Once they’ve learned all their skills, the game recommends you fuse two or more together into a stronger demon, which inherits its “parents” attacks. The more varied a demon’s skills, the more useful they are in combat, which focuses around the series trademark Press Turn system.
Every character in the party is given one turn, hitting an enemy’s elemental weakness or landing a critical hit grants them an extra turn. However, hitting an enemy with an element that they nullify, reflect or drain costs you extra turns. This is true for enemies too, which means having a party with plenty of resistances keeps enemies from overwhelming you with their bonus turns. A new feature added to the system for SMT4 is smirking. When a character gains a bonus turn or nullifies an opponent’s, they have a chance to smirk, which gives them incredible stat boosts, and makes all attacks miss them until they get their next turn. It can totally turn the tide of a battle, but of course, enemies can smirk too, and they never waste it on a useless attack.
In true SMT and Atlus tradition, this makes the game very, very hard. You will be dying a lot. However, unlike most SMT games, you’re given to option to save anywhere, as well as difficulty settings, and the opportunity to pay your way back from death. Whenever you die, you’re sent to Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, who offers to let you revive for a fee, payable in either Macca, the in-game currency, or Play Coins, the 3DS’s system level pedometer reward.
Unfortunately, this happens EVERY time you die, with no way to opt out, meaning whenever you die, you have to go through a few dialog choices telling Charon you don’t want to pay, then confirm that you don’t want to pay, and then finally you get a game over screen that sends you back to the main menu. The game warns you when a boss is coming; you’re never thrown into the fray without a chance to save. It feels like the game was designed with save points, and then hastily retrofitted to let you save anywhere, without anyone realizing that it made the whole revival system moot and frustrating.
But back to the Tokyo thing.
As the game progreses, you eventually find yourself in Tokyo, but only after a few hours of digging deeper and deeper into Naraku. About six hours of the game take place exclusively in the menu-driven Mikado. Dungeons like Naraku and a nearby forest are explored in a third person perspective, much like Shin Megami Tensei 3, or the more popular Persona spin-off games, but in Mikado, getting to those places is as simple as selecting them from a menu. No world map, no exploration, no getting lost.
In Tokyo however, you explore a top down world map with buildings you can enter to explore in third person. The map is massive, complicated, and is sometimes best navigated with an actual map of Tokyo in hand, but it’s also littered with treasures and demons to negotiate onto your side. The stark dichotomy isn’t lost on anyone who’s played an SMT game before, it’s a reference to the game’s other constant, the alignment system.
In a page torn straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons instruction manual, players in SMT make choices that determine their alignment with either Chaos or Law. Law traditionally represents angels, dogma, peace and the status quo. Chaos is associated with demons, and revolves around individuality, revolution and the tenet that might makes right. The rigid structure of Mikado is law. The player can never get lost and can only be hurt if they put themselves in harm’s way, but can also never explore, never see anything that Mikado doesn’t explicitly want you to see. Tokyo is chaos. The apocalypse has left factions warring for control of the destroyed city, with the weak having no place in the ensuing ruins, but the player is free to go wherever they please, even if it means they’ll get horribly lost.
Some players might find that they enjoy Mikado’s structure and simplicity. Some players might want that status quo to be shaken up and prefer the constant danger of Tokyo to the ignorance of Mikado. But for players who find both to be too extreme, there’s a middle ground to the two alignments, one that often represents the “good” endings of the SMT games; neutral. Neutral is associated with humans, balance, rationality, and the ability to make a change. Of course, there’s no good or evil, but historically speaking, the canon endings of SMT games are usually the neutral ones. SMT4 ingeniously ties the games very structure into this message Extremism on either side isn't right, but both sides have a point, there can be a balance, there should be a balance, and you, the player, should strive to find it.
It’s incredibly clever game design and would make the game absolutely perfect, if not for one minor problem: it leads to a game with two problematic halves making an even more problematic whole. Mikado is too linear, too rigid, but Tokyo is too open, too chaotic. Of course, neither is “bad”, just like the alignments, but neither works if you ignore the other half. And while that dovetails with the game’s message perfectly, it also means you have to warp between Mikado and Tokyo a lot, which is less than ideal. Like the revival system, it feels like an excellent idea that’s just executed incorrectly, if not poorly.
The connections between Mikado and Tokyo run deeper than just gameplay and story integration. There’s a story that underlies the whole thing, but it never overstays its welcome, characters are never terribly chatty, and cutscenes rarely interrupt the flow of battles and exploration. It’s an interesting supernatural/sci-fi mystery that stays intriguing the whole way through. But, there’s no way to skip cutscenes or dialog. You can fast forward through it, which works well enough, but when you’ve died on one boss five times, and you’ve just spent all the extra time either going through Charon’s dialog or just exiting to the home menus and restarting the software, those extra minutes of fast-forwarded dialog really add up.
In terms of pure gameplay, battles are addictive, and it never stops being fun to suss out enemy weaknesses and exploit them. But Tokyo can occasionally be a pain to explore, and Mikado often feels too boring and pointless. Tying those gameplay elements into the narrative and themes of the game is brilliant and deserves to be commended, I just can’t help but feel it could have been done with some more elegance.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is, fittingly, a game of dualities. It wants to be hard in an old school way, and forces you to strategize carefully and thoughtfully in battle. But it also wants to be friendly and modern, offering you the ability to save anywhere and revive upon death. It wants to be chaotic and unpredictable, but also wants to get you right to the action when necessary. It wants to be a linear, story-driven game, but it also wants to give you plenty of choices, both in dialog and in gameplay. It wants to be both Chaos and Law at once, and asks you to find your own balance between the two extremes. Unfortunately, sometimes it just can’t find the balance necessary to make itself a flawless game.