Monday, October 16, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 3: Takeru Sasazuka

Continuing my Collar x Malice talk, Takeru Sasazuka was my second playthrough, since he was mentally tied in my head with Kei Okazaki. If I had been more aware of when I was making the route lock decision, I might have chosen him instead.

Sasazuka used to be in the Cyber Crime Division of the police and is as prickly as all hell. The first couple chapters of his story are full of verbal abuse, with him usually calling Hoshino "stupid," "idiot," "cat," "dog," or some combination of "stupid/idiot" followed by one of the animals. He even calls her "pooch" or "poochie" a few times.

Though it is apparent that he has some sense of consideration for her situation in the prologue (probably so players don't outright hate him), the only thing that dials this back once his route begins is Hoshino proving that she has value as an assistant. If she wants to work on the August case with him, she needs to show that she can keep up, otherwise he's not going to bother.

Sasazuka is not always a jerk. He does have a softer side to him, but he's not inclined to show it and he's displeased with people who can't keep up with his thinking. If he's happy with Hoshino, it's common for him to offer her some food, which she dislikes because she feels like he's treating her like a pet. (He is, because she's wearing a collar.) It's more like: if Sasazuka knows she's not about to break down, he doesn't care about pushing her, but if she's mentally wrecked, he's (generally) considerate enough to hold his tongue.

Believe it or not, telling Hoshino that she's looking ugly is actually Sasazuka expressing concern.

As his chapters progress, he insults Hoshino less and finds her more useful, but getting that far can be a bit cringe-inducing and I wish Hoshino would give back as much as she takes, since she knows that Sasazuka is not put off by being on the receiving end of blunt conversation. Sakuragawa used to speak in an extremely frank manner with him (especially by Japanese standards) and she's the only person at the police station who seems to have been friends with him before he left.

That said, Sasazuka's storyline is a lot of fun precisely because he's inclined to say whatever he feels like without consideration of other people's feelings. He's not stupid, he knows when to hold himself back, but if restraint is unnecessary he's great at pissing people off in ways that would be terrible in real life but entertaining in a game.

One of the best scenes is when he and Hoshino have dinner with her brother Kazuki and his friend Akito. The whole point of Sasazuka being there is to make with contact with Akito, who is suspected of being part of Adonis, but Sasazuka has never been to Hoshino's house before so they need to make up a reason for him to be there. Sasazuka tells her that he will come up with something and then introduces himself to her brother as her boyfriend. He then proceeds to refer Kazuki as "little brother" which irritates the heck out of him and embarrasses Hoshino. (As if she could ever have such a boorish boyfriend! Oh wait…)

The dinner is awkward as expected, and there's one point when Sasazuki starts telling Hoshino to fill up his bowl with different items from the hot pot. Kazuki is rightfully annoyed with seeing her "boyfriend" ordering her around like that, but what makes it funny is that it's not really any different from their working relationship as part of the investigation team, where she's often picking up food items on the way to the office or to his place and then handing it over. Their behavior looks perfectly normal within the context of the investigation, but totally abnormal outside of it.

By Chapter 4 though, Sasazuka's insults become closer to a form of teasing. His affection for Hoshino starts fairly early compared to the others, and perhaps his blunt personality makes it easier to see when he's being considerate. Sasazuki is not one to give blanket reassurances (he's still very much a tell it as it is kind of person), but in a way that makes it a lot sweeter when he does choose to support Hoshino. As he says, he's not going to spoil anyone, but if she's at her limit and needs someone to lean on, he'll be there.

Surprisingly, he kisses her on the mouth halfway through his route (during the scene above), which is unusual since that's typically an event saved for the end, if it happens at all. I mostly attribute that to his direct personality. Sasazuka doesn't mess around. And it makes for a nice change of pace, because I'm so used to the commitment happening just before or after the finale. But Sasazuka's invested early, which allows more time to think of him and Hoshino as a couple rather than just becoming a couple.

It also makes the ribbing they get from other characters more entertaining since everyone else is also able to see how close the two of them are (for instance, coming into work together since she spent the night at his apartment).

Ironically at the point Sakuragawa says this, Hoshino has already been in bed with Sasazuka twice. Nothing happened. The first time they were both tired and never awake at the time same. The second time Hoshino was drunk and passed out.

Sasazuka's personal story also dovetails neatly with Adonis's comments about wanting the ex-cops of Yanagi's agency to eventually come over to their side. His motivation for joining the police in the first place was to uphold the Swords and Firearms Control Law, which makes it illegal for ordinary citizens to own weapons. When it was removed and the average citizen armed in the wake of the August X-Day Incident, Sasazuka saw no reason to continue work with the police. He only later rejoins in his route because there is a chance he can get the law reinstated.

The reason it's so personal to him is that his mother was murdered right in front of him by a shooter while he lived in the US. The gunman was a minor and had powerful underworld connections, so he got off with a light sentence. Teenage Sasazuka would have killed the other kid if he could, but lacked the means to get to him.

Late in his route, in a bid to get him to switch sides, Adonis offers Sasazuka the chance to get his vengeance, and it plays perfectly into what Adonis does. It offers revenge and organizes a way for people to get it. By the time this offer comes out, the player has discovered all of Sasazuka's backstory, and the idea that he would change sides is highly believable. I thought there was a decent possibility that the last chapter of the game would be chasing after Sasazuka to bring him back.

Though that's not what happens, there is a bad ending where he frees Hoshino from the collar (presumably as part of a deal) and then leaves to join Adonis. In the real ending he solves a puzzle left behind by Akito Sera and uses the information there to launch a raid on Adonis's headquarters. Sadly he doesn't go on the raid himself, so there's no danger or shooting going on like at the end of Okazaki's route, so his last chapter is pretty tame. Most of it is actually epilogue material.

On the other hand, the epilogue fluff is really good fluff. We see Sasazuka and Hoshino formally start dating and admit that they love each other, though the confession goes about off-kilter as you'd expect between Hoshino's hesitation and Sasazuka's attitude.

We also get closure for Kazuki and Akito, since Hoshino's younger brother has had a tough time of it, seeing his best friend get apprehended as a murderer.

Though I was worried about Sasazuka going in, I really liked his route and he ended up being my favorite romance. He'd probably be a pill in real life, but from a storytelling perspective he's a lot of fun, and I like that we don't go through a lot of romantic hesitation with him.

There were so many moments when I had a stupid grin on my face or was laughing from the situations or the dialogue. His route lacks the finality of a direct face-off, but aside from that, I found it fulfilling. It's not necessarily a funny route, there's still a lot of death involved, but when it chooses to be humorous, it's a lot of fun, and to date, it's the only time I've had a drunk protagonist madly protesting that she's not drunk.

Next week I hope to share something about my upcoming project! If you'd like to get a look before everyone else, you can sign up for my mailing list using the tab just under the name of my blog.

Monday, October 9, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 2: Kei Okazaki

Kei Okazaki is the narcoleptic weirdo who makes his introduction in the story by climbing in through a window on the fifth floor. He's portrayed as a happy-go-lucky airhead without much in the way of social common sense, but there's a strong feeling that his outward demeanor is an act, because he's a member of the Security Police (SP), which is sort of like the Secret Service, except it seems to be more general purpose, since their bodyguard duties extend to more than just national-level government officials and their families. They are considered part of the police.

As I mentioned last time, I didn't realize how I ended up locked into a route, and I was initially bothered because Okazaki is the only love interest who is not part of Aiji Yanagi's crew. I didn't want to wander off the beaten path on my first outing, but I figured since they already gated two of the love interests he's probably not as far off as he looks at first glance.

Okazaki is also fairly prominent in the artwork, which likes to place him in similar prominence and opposite of Yanagi, which suggests his story is almost of as high a consequence (or maybe it's just that he's voiced by Yuki Kaji, who is currently very popular).

It turns out that Okazaki is an excellent first route as far as the main plot goes. Aside from the fact he's not part of Yanagi's agency, his route gives the player an excellent sense of grounding in how Adonis works and makes natural connections between different X-Day Incidents. He also has the most satisfying climax out of the default three since there's a spectacular level of danger and a feeling that Adonis has suffered an immense setback.

Because Okazaki is not "in" he's also the only love interest who starts off not knowing about the collar, nor can Hoshino tell him about it since notifying the police is one of the criteria to getting killed. He does find out eventually, but since the circumstances for its revelation are completely out of Hoshino's control, Adonis cuts her a break and warns Okazaki to drop the matter unless he wants to get her killed.

As expected, Okazaki's irreverent personality and lack of social tact hides one sharp cookie. He has a way of sneaking up on people, even the cautious ex-cops of Yanagi's agency, and his reflexes are quite good. Okazaki is also fully capable of dropping the doofus act, which I assume he keeps up because it disarms people even if they're suspicious of him.

That said, it doesn't seem to be entirely an act as his subordinate Yoshinari finds it out of character when he's not munching on crazy flavored snacks, falling asleep in alleys, etc. Okazaki also admits to Hoshino that he's terrible at just about anything unrelated to his job. He can't cook, not because he's never tried, but because he'll likely start a fire as soon as he lights the stove. No one should be literally that bad, but he claims to be.

My biggest fear was that playing Okazaki's route would cut me off from Yanagi and his team, because other otome games have done that post-route lock and half the cast just disappears, but they're not entirely out of the picture. Sasazuka and Enomoto are reduced, but Yanagi is still a comforting presence and Shiraishi a creepy one. In fact, Yanagi's behavior in Okazaki's route just made me want to play his route more and I'm not sure if that was supposed to be intentional.

Okazaki's route is not without its flaws though. From a storytelling perspective, one of the most irritating moments I noticed is when Hoshino takes a dramatic stand against Okazaki, recognizing that he may have to kill her as part of his job, but regardless she is going to work with Yanagi and his team because she has to in order to save lives, including her own. It's a very gutsy thing to say and Okazaki is impressed.

Problem is, a few days later she ends up not going to Yanagi and company because she decides she has other things to do, which kind of takes the oomph out of that kind of declaration. If she wasn't planning on going back right away, there wasn't much risk in her saying that. It was a waste of good dialogue.

The player definitely does not spend much time with the regular investigation team though, and Hoshino decides to investigate the July, and later November, X-Day crimes, which Yanagi's team had not been directly looking into. Okazaki is supposed to be "protecting" (actually spying) on Yanagi's team for the police, but despite this, he chooses to follow Hoshino around to protect her since she's going into potentially dangerous situations alone. It doesn't entirely make sense how he's able to ditch his assignment like that, though I suppose on the back end he could be finagling things since Hoshino's contact with Yanagi's group is suspicious to the higher-ups in the police.

His route was all right, and the Adonis stuff really held me through, but it wasn't quite the jumpstart I wanted for my first route through the game, mostly because Okazaki isn't really the type of character I enjoy. I didn't like his repeated efforts to put Hoshino out of harm's way, and while it makes sense to some degree since he has a lot more experience than her, he's also got a death wish, and I hate that.

Dying heroically for a girl just doesn't do anything for me. It's one thing to not have a choice in order to save someone's life, but Okazaki doesn't feel alive unless the person he's protecting is in danger, and he's thrilled by the thought of dying to protect what he treasures most. That's not really a good foundation for a lasting relationship.

Fortunately, Hoshino agrees and even turns down his bodyguard efforts later in the story because of it. I don't think I've seen such a good back and forth fight in an otome before. He wants to die for her, she want him to live for her, and their strongest wishes are mutually incompatible. She even dumps him.

The best part is when their fight spills out in front of Yanagi's team. Everyone seems to agree that it has to be Okazaki's fault, but Hoshino should at least hear him out, and the two of them are eventually kicked out of the office and told to go come back after they've figured things out.

Hoshino does manage to talk him out of it, though oddly he's not moved by the fact that losing him would make her sad. What does it, are really two things. The first is she manages to tap into his jealousy, by telling him that if he dies she might fall in love and marry Yoshinari or Yanagi. Okazaki really doesn't like the idea of her being with another man. The second, which we know from one of the bad endings is the one that echoes with him, is that death is permanent. There's nothing else after it, not just the big things, but the little things too, like enjoying good food and seeing new movies. She's really persistent.

Okazaki does have a reason for his death wish, a colleague had died saving him when he did not believe his own life worth saving, so Okazaki wants to die preserving someone better than him. But it's still weird, and even after he's convinced to give up his death wish he makes it clear that though he is living for Hoshino, he does not expect to live past her death.

The Adonis story in Okazaki's route resolves for the most part, though it's clear that the head of the organization is not captured and that the substitution murders might have an ulterior purpose behind them. We don't learn the reason behind Hoshino's collaring. But Sanjou, one of the Adonis agents, does bring up a good point about what they do.

He is the perpetrator (not executor) of the August murders on behalf of an online harassment victim, which feels like a terribly topical subject. Sometimes there's very little someone can do to stop or get back at the people hurting them and legal recourse is barely or non-existent.

To someone suffering from that, Adonis could be a godsend.

As an aside, Collar x Malice uses text messaging a lot between characters who are not in the same location, which is a cool plot device. It's not the only modern day game to use it, but it's a nice way for the characters to express their personalities. In particular, Okazaki has cute Japanese style emojis that are a delight to see if you like that kind of stuff.

Since blunt jerk with a presumed heart of gold was my other interest from the starting pool of characters (and I probably would have chosen him if I was aware of the route lock question), Sasazuka is up next, either next week or the week after, depending on news.

Monday, October 2, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 1: Overview

In which I talk (write) about visual novels from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: PS Vita
Release: 2017

I originally wanted to play Collar x Malice the day I got it, even though I was still embroiled in Persona 5. I was mostly playing Persona on weekends due to the length of its dungeons, so I thought I'd make Collar x Malice my weekday game that I could play 30-60 minutes and then go to bed. Except that after I started it, I realized that I couldn't, because thematically, there's a pretty strong overlap between the two games and I wasn't in the right mindset to enjoy a darker, more murderous version of the Phantom Thieves.

The premise of Collar x Malice is that a terrorist group called Adonis is fed up with corruption in Japan. They punish those the law did not or could not bring to justice in preparation for a mysterious event they call the X-Day. Once a month they commit a murder (or group of murders) and leave a Roman number painted in red, counting down from IX, and a unique coin that has not been revealed to the public, so a genuine crime committed by Adonis cannot be confused with a copycat.

Adonis is much like an extreme version of the Phantom Thieves, and their members are willing to kill to get society's attention.

Please be aware, since I am writing this within a year of the game's release, that I will be discussing spoilers for all routes and there is a definite spoiler screenshot later in this overview. If you're worried about spoilers, you should stop reading now.

Also worth noting, though Collar x Malice is an otome visual novel aimed at heterosexual women, much of its focus revolves around solving the X-Day Incidents. It's not a straight-up romance and characters will occasionally ask the protagonist for her opinion on cases, suspects, methodology, etc. Though the game is forgiving, messing up too often can lead to a bad ending. Attentive players will have an easier time picking through the noise, gaining information, and winning the trust of those they're working with (which includes the love interest).

When I talk about Collar x Malice in person with friends, I can rave about the mystery and solving the terrorist attacks and feel 100% genuine about it. It's a solid thriller.

However, there's no getting away entirely from the romance end of things, as the player has to be put on a romance route to complete the game. Honestly, the way Collar x Malice is set up, there's nothing that requires it to be a romantic story. From a narrative standpoint, stopping Adonis is the main plot and the romance is the subplot, so it should have been possible to do a stag route too.

But hey, if romance is what it took to get this game greenlit, I'm good. Like Code:Realize, I think Collar x Malice has the potential to translate well into an anime series, because there's a lot to chew on besides the romance and that could widen the appeal.

What kicks off the story is the kidnapping of Ichika Hoshino, the protagonist. She's a rookie police officer who gets tangled up in the X-Day events when she is mysteriously knocked unconscious and a metal collar fastened around her neck. The collar is a link to Adonis, and they can listen in on everything around her, but if she reveals its presence to anyone who doesn't already know about it or tries to remove it, it will kill her via lethal injection.

Adonis leaves her to be rescued by a group of ex-cops who are investigating the X-Day Incidents, and because Hoshino is their biggest lead, the men want to keep her around even if they don't fully trust her. Adonis tells them in a letter that Hoshino is a sympather to their cause (which she is assuredly not!) and hopes that as the team closes in on the truth they will side with Adonis as well.

I like Hoshino. Though she occasionally suffers from the usual dose of otome heroine helplessness, she has a hidden reserve of guts and insists on going into danger if she has to. (She is a police officer after all.) Hoshino's the kind of gal who likes to do practice rounds at the firing range to keep her skills sharp and considers her marksmanship to be one of her best points. In fact, despite being a visual novel, Hoshino (and thus the player) does have to shoot on occasion, which surprised me. It's a minor quick time action event, but it's still there.

Another thing I like about Hoshino is that she has a life outside of the X-Day events. She has a younger brother who she's on shaky terms with, she has coworkers, she goes out drinking after work, and we know she's comfortable enough with her drink buddy that she's taken him home numerous times. (And it's cool that their relationship is both close and totally platonic, which shouldn't be as rare as it is in fiction.)

As a result of Hoshino having a life beyond the events of the story, we often get scenes of her normal life, doing her usual work, as well as the ones where she is discretely investigating Adonis. Some of the best scenes are when the two worlds collide, because one cannot be informed about the other. Her supervisor wonders how she knows an SP (Security Police officer), her brother discovers she has a "boyfriend" she's never mentioned before, etc. It keeps her reality grounded when her coworkers are talking about each other or her non-existent holiday plans.

Branching is handled a little differently for an Otomate title. Though there is still a common route like in Hakuoki and Code:Realize, it's very short this time, comprising only a single chapter, and depending on their choices the player gets little to no notification about how their eventual route is chosen.

This surprised me since prior to route lock, Hoshino emphasizes that which case she chooses to research will impact who she works with. I really studied those case files, expecting that at some point I would be asked which one I wanted to tackle and that in turn would nudge me towards the person whose route I'd end up with. That didn't happen. When I made my choice it was in such a non-obvious manner that I didn't realize the significance of it until replay.

It's probably for the best though as the potential love interests are somewhat dysfunctional and do not come across as good people to get involved with, except possibly Aiji Yanagi, who is annoyingly locked off as the final route. He was the one I was most interested in, and between the other four there were two that piqued my interest, though truthfully, I mean it when I say they're dysfunctional. The two I was otherwise open to were the blunt jerk with (presumably) a heart of gold and the narcoleptic weirdo who likes to come into the office through a window (on the fifth floor!).

There are only three routes available at the start, so the player is asked to make a dialogue choice with each of the currently available men. They're essentially a affirmative/negative to see whether or not the player has any rapport with them and then if they do, when they meet Sakuragawa she will probe Hoshino for her commitment to the cause. Hoshino's potential answers are how route assignment is decided. As it turns out, I'd given affirmatives to two of them (the jerk and the weirdo) and so the two dialogue options I had were "There are things that I need to protect." and "I want the details of the weapons ban repeal."

Not wanting to sounds like a blunt jackass, I answered the former. If I had hit it off with the third guy, I would also have the choice "I want to research X-Day's beginnings" which would have made it more clear that my answer was choosing what I would research, and therefore which case I would be handling.

From there Hoshino will gradually build up trust and later affection between her and the man whose route she is on as they solve the X-Day Incidents. Since there are eight incidents, not counting the one that begins in December, not all of them are addressed in any given route. Rather, each route focuses on the root causes of two of them and Yanagi's route deals with them as a whole.

The neat twist that makes the monthly X-Day crimes difficult to solve is that the people who are the likeliest suspects always have an alibi and even when the police catch a perpetrator, they're not necessarily possible to pin down as one. For instance, the July incident had to to have been an X-Day crime, because of the spray painted VI and the coin found in the victim's home, but when the victim died, it looked like he was attacking the alleged murderer and his death was in self defense. The murderer had no connection to either the victim or the woman the victim was stalking so it shouldn't have been possible for the death to have been pre-arranged.

This is possible because of what the game calls a "substitution murder."

Adonis believes that the law is not doing its job, and allegedly everyone it kills deserved to die for a crime that went unpunished. They're revenge killings, and what Adonis does, is organize a swap. Person A kills the target of Person B's vengeance, and in return Person B kills Person A's target, except on a grander scale. In most cases, the pawns in Adonis have no direct connection to their targets and are given their assignments based on their ability.

Interestingly, there are achievements tied to the the X-Day events, but they're not for catching the perpetrator of the event. They're for learning the story behind the person whose vengeance was fulfilled that day. In game they're known as the executors.

Collar x Malice looks for where the system is failing people, and the reason Adonis can be hopeful about the ex-cops on Yanagi's team is that each of them had quit for a personal reason where being a part of the police would no longer help them.

Normally I don't think much about which route is the best play order, but because Collar x Malice is a mystery thriller on top of an otome the information the player learns on each route is different, and they interlock in a way that questions raised in one storyline can be answered in another.

I played Okazaki > Sasazuka > Enomoto > Shiraishi > Yanagi and ended up very happy with the reveals, but I think Sasazuka could be moved before Okazaki or after Enomoto without a problem. I like Okazaki before Enomoto though, simply because one of the Adonis executors on Enomoto's route gets a better introduction in Okazaki's route than he does in Enomoto's and he later ends up being a critical character on Enomoto's route. Either Okazaki or Sasazuka should be before Shiraishi though, because the player should be aware of the mole before tackling his, and Enomoto never brings it up.

For an otome, there are bad endings galore, usually violent. Hoshino has been stabbed, injected, shot, bludgeoned to death, and other horrible things in my quest to unlock the trophy for getting all endings in the game. It's not particularly gory, most of the violence is off camera, but the game is not always fair about signaling which choices will lead to a bad ending. Sometimes the deaths can feel pretty random and in fact, each route will have a cameo appearance of an executor from another route, which results in player death.

Also, though switching viewpoint characters isn't unheard of in otome, Collar x Malice does it a lot; between Hoshino, her love interest, Adonis, and sometimes even the police investigation team. Because everything around Hoshino is relayed to Adonis, sometimes other characters need to relay critical information when out of earshot of her. Other times it's to cover events that happened when Hoshino is not around. There are a lot of moving parts to the story and Hoshino is not intricately involved in all of them; Adonis's infighting, deals made between other major characters, etc.

As with my previous VN Talk entries, I'll go through the routes one week at a time, in the order that I played them. A personal project of mine is getting close to the point I'm comfortable talking about it though, so the Collar x Malice series will probably be interrupted periodically in favor of writing news. In the meantime, Okazaki is planned for next week!

Monday, September 25, 2017

RPG Talk: Persona 5

In which I talk (write) about RPGs from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: PS4 (also PS3)
Release: 2017

Persona 5 is my one sprawling JRPG for the year. There aren't many where I can go 100+ hours anymore, and even if I cut out some of the side stuff I was doing, How Long to Beat places the average main story only playthrough at 95 hours. Even by JRPG standards that's incredibly long, so what's taking up all that space?

I know this game is less than a year old at this point, so be aware there are late game spoilers below!

The story is structured to take place over eight elaborate heists that involve invading a Palace, a sort of mental construct that appears in the minds of those whose desires have been distorted. The Phantom Thieves steal the Palace treasures that represent the source of those distorted desires and thus return the target to the more compassionate human being they were before their desires took over their lives.

The bulk of the game takes place from April to December and with few exceptions, the player plays through each day on the calendar. The heists are spread out so there's typically a month or so in between each of them.

The payoff is that each Palace is a major event and they're so large that they're best broken up over multiple play sessions (or plan for your whole afternoon or evening to be spent clearing one). Seriously, a couple of them are so long that it might take five or six hours to push through. The cruise ship alone makes me wonder if I'll ever play this again. And each Palace prior to the penultimate dungeon brings a new party member, and as a result attempts to advance the story around them.

But the pacing suffers because of it. While new members are constantly joining it feels like the end is a far-off intangible thing. I remember being at the 70 hour mark and still wondering how much more I had to go, whereas with most other RPGs, I'd be done or tying off my last few side quests by now.

Both Persona 3 and 4 have all their playable characters in the party by September. In contrast, Akechi doesn't join until October, with his story dungeon taking place as late as early November depending on how much the player pushes the deadline, at which point it feels very late to be getting used to any new party members.

Akechi is introduced a lot earlier than when he joins, so he's not an unfamiliar face when it happens, but by the time he does it completely looks like final dungeon territory. I felt I barely had an opportunity to settle Akechi into my team dynamics (which turned out to not be a great idea) before it was confrontation time.

Though I realize there needs to be room to showcase all the characters from a main storyline perspective, there didn't need to be eight Palaces. Even allowing that each of the Palaces is thematically based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, the designs double up on one, since they split Pride and Vanity into two different dungeons.

The thing is, the game settles into a routine. The Phantom Thieves decide on a target to reform, they infiltrate to figure out where in the target's Palace the treasure is located, they send a calling card which buys them real world notoriety as well as causing the treasure to manifest in a stealable form, and then steal the treasure so the person owns up to their crimes.

There's obviously a larger story going on, and there is a conspiracy involved that is happy to take the emergence of the Phantom Thieves as another pawn in its scheme, but the secrets are doled out so slowly that it doesn't really get going until the end of fifth Palace, when we see the black masked Persona-user kill someone for the first time and the Phantom Thieves take the fall.

This really needed to happen at the halfway point once all the setup was done, because it felt like the meat of the story was being held too far back. It's not that the earlier portion wasn't fun, because it was, but it was so long in getting to where it needed to be that my enthusiasm was waning in the final quarter even though I was finally getting the answers I wanted so much. That final leg was crazy good. It just needed to come sooner.

(From a gameplay perspective I might have been less critical about the pacing if the Palaces were shorter and Mementos did not exist. I'm fairly certain if the Palaces were half the size and the 67 floors of Mementos proper was removed, that would shave off a minimum of 30 hours. That's a lot of dungeon running.)

Once past the pacing issue, there's a lot to enjoy here.

The Persona games are a work of urban fantasy and typically tackle modern day concerns about apathy, alienation, and the effect of media on people's lives. Persona 5 is not any different, though initially it tackles it from the perspective of corruption.

The Phantom Thieves are "ordinary" high school students who, for one reason or another, are social outcasts. It could be because of a criminal record (in the protagonist's case), ethnic heritage (Ann's), poor social skills (Yuusuke's), etc. When they're pulled into the Metaverse, they recognize the unfairness of their situations and their decision to fight awakens their Personas. With the catlike Morgana as a guide to the Metaverse and how to use their powers, they become the Phantom Thieves to reform criminals and expose the corruption in society (becoming famous isn't a bad side effect either).

Persona 5 builds the methodology of the Phantom Thieves remarkable well as I've already written about, and lays out the possible ways their heists could go wrong early enough that it's less of a surprise when things finally do go belly up. It also makes the characters question whether or not what they are doing is right, though they typically talk themselves into it.

The thing is, the targets have no choice in the matter of their reformation. In fact, in most cases they don't want their hearts (treasures) stolen. Doing so causes their world to fall apart around them in an incredibly public fashion as they confess everything in front of as large an audience as possible while demanding that they be charged for their crimes.

Do they deserve it? Probably. Is it right? That's the harder question.

Ironically it's the traitor Akechi who voices the most reasonable argument against the Phantom Thieves. Regardless of their intentions, what they're doing is circumventing the law and administering justice on their own terms. Not only that, but going into the Palace is potentially dangerous to the target, since if their shadow is killed, they die in the real world as well.

I wish there had been a little more introspection on the part of the Phantom Thieves. While they don't have many options available to them (which is why they become the Phantom Thieves to begin with), they don't spend much time thinking about the morality of what they're doing. It does comes up, especially in the beginning, but pretty much drops off by the end, to the point where if they didn't destroy the Metaverse in order to defeat Yaldabaoth they probably would have continued being Phantom Thieves past the conclusion of the game.

Since the agreement between the team is that they only undertake an operation if all of them agree, it's a shame this wasn't exploited since it would have made for some interest teammate conflict if someone started to have second thoughts about their methods.

I feel like I'm mostly talking about bad things, even though I did enjoy the game, so there is one late game twist I want to discuss, because I think its execution was fabulous.

The Velvet Room has always been a safe haven in the Persona games. In fact, in more recent iterations, it even feels a world apart from the rest of the story since the protagonist is the only character who interacts with it and Philemon, Igor's master, no longer plays an active role in the series.

So when the protagonist landed in the Velvet Room for the first time, I had no reason to doubt the Igor I found in front of me. I was surprised that his voice had been recasted in the English version, but supposed that it had been done to match the Japanese recast, which similarly featured a deeper-voiced Igor. (Igor's original Japanese VA passed away after Persona 4.)

Igor's purpose is typically as a game mechanic. He fuses Personas for the player and provides some atmosphere regarding the protagonist's potential growth. Sometimes he alludes to events yet to come, but he's not an active player. Outside of the Persona fusion, he's very much on the sidelines. I did find it strange though that I could forge a Confidant link with him, seeing as he's less of a character than an idea.

In retrospect there are other clues that Persona 5's "Igor" is not who he seems. He does not fuse Personas like he normally does. Instead the Personas are "executed" by guillotines managed by the twin wardens Caroline and Justine. This initially seems like a thematic change due to the protagonist's Velvet Room looking like a prison (the Velvet Room takes on a different appearance depending on its visitor) and serves as an excellent way to hide that things are not business as usual.

Chances are "Igor" does not have the ability to fuse Personas at all, because the twist is that the Velvet Room has been taken over by another entity. I can't imagine that anyone saw it coming since it took advantage of a real world necessity (recasting Igor) and furthered covered it up with some clever misdirection in the game itself. Series newcomers would have been surprised regardless, but fooling the long time fans was well played indeed.

Sadly, Yaldabaoth himself is not a terribly interesting character, since as a supernatural entity he's more a force of nature than a complex personality. He masquerades as Igor for most of the game and is responsible for the protagonist's awakening as a Persona user, but it's more because he has a grand game in mind and he wanted to see which pawn (Goro Akechi or the protagonist) would win. And everything in the game stems from that.

It's not the shiniest bit of writing, but allows for a Seven Deadly Sins-themed boss fight at the end and some feel-good rallying around the Phantom Thieves as the rest of Tokyo cheers for them.

Really, the most appealing part of the later Persona games is the journey, the friends made along the way, and the stuff right up until the final boss. It's still too long for my tastes, but for the most part Persona 5 does this well and I'm looking forward to spending another bout of time with these characters when the anime comes out next year.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Persona 5: Logistics of a Female Protagonist

Having finished Persona 5 this past week, I starting thinking about what it would take to include a female protagonist in the inevitable re-release with bonus material.

I was disappointed that Persona 4: Golden didn't have an option where you could play as a female protagonist, considering that Persona 3 Portable did, but when I look at what was involved with making Persona 3's female main character (FeMC), I can see why they'd be reluctant to do it again.

Unlike a game like Dragon Age or Elder Scrolls where the character's gender rarely comes into play aside from romance options, the Persona games are heavily gendered even outside of romance. I'm not sure if it's a Japanese cultural issue or just that life as a teenage girl often is different from that of a teenage boy. For instance, in Persona 3 one of the male MC's friends is a high school boy crushing on his teacher and he wants to start a romantic relationship with her. It's not terribly likely that he would confide this kind of crush to a female friend.

That Social Link was completely replaced in the FeMC's version of the game. (The student himself still exists, but he's not one of the FeMC's friends.) And it wasn't the only Social Link that was either replaced or rewritten. All existing female party member Social Links were redone to bond as girls rather than romance a guy, and all the male party members, who didn't even have Social Links in the original (!), had to be written from scratch and added to the game.

Persona 5 as it stands has nine female characters who are romance options, and because this is Persona the player will be getting to know them regardless for gameplay bonuses (though romance at the end is still optional). Looking at the list of Confidants, and likely male targets of affection, we have the player's fellow party members, Yusuke and Ryuji, classmate Mishima, and that's pretty much it.

It's possible a tortured romance could be managed with Goro Akechi (they did manage one with Ryoji in P3), which would bring the number up to four, but most of the male characters in the game aren't suitable. Shinya's too young, Iwai's too old (though if my character was 10-20 years older sure), and Sojiro's the player's surrogate dad. So if they wanted to do a female route, it would require an extensive reworking of the Confidants.

Kawakami would probably go, since hiring a cosplay maid to clean your room on a dare from your guy friends is less probable for a FeMC. A few other female links would probably have to be replaced without anything inherently being wrong with them to allow enough romance options.

While I wouldn't mind female love interests for a FeMC, the game would still be short of male options, and a lot of dialogue would still need to be changed. For instance, someone seeing two teenage girls hanging out together probably won't jump to the conclusion that they're dating in the same way they would if it's a boy and a girl, unless there's some other context involved.

Also worth noting is that three, possibly four, of the current romance options are adult women. (Chihaya seems out be out of high school, but she might still be a teenager and in Japan the legal age of adulthood is 20.) While dating your teacher or a twenty-something woman is a teenage male fantasy, the situation becomes a lot creepier when playing a teenage girl with her adult male love interests.

It might not be fair, since teenage girls crush on adults just as much as teenage boys, but I think the potential squick factor and the chances of the adult being viewed as a predator is higher. (Granted, the consensual male teacher, female student relationship is not unheard of in shoujo manga so it's possible the Japanese player base might not bat an eye at it.)

I remember a relatively obscure visual novel, Sweet Fuse, came out to the US a few years ago which originally had a seventeen-year-old female protagonist. Half her potential love interests were in their 20s and one was even in his 30s. When it came out in the US, her age was bumped up to 18 so she was at least legal. This wouldn't work for Persona 5 though, considering that much of the game takes place in school and the player is pretty obviously not a senior since they have upperclassmen.

Also an issue, especially for the English localization since our language is more pronoun dependant, is that all the spoken dialogue that refers to the main character's gender would have to be re-recorded. Considering that there was not enough room to hold dual audio Japanese and English audio (Japanese was a free DLC), adding a gender might take up enough space that the audio wouldn't fit (and hitting download to get your gender VO DLC just sounds terrible).

Considering the work involved (and this is assuming no other new content), is there enough reason to go through all this trouble for a game that's already out in the wild? I'd like to say yes, but I don't know what the sales figures were for P3P. It's possible that for a re-release it wasn't worth the money spent and that's why Persona 4 Golden didn't off a gender option.

Financially I'd like to hope that Persona 5 knocked it out of the park. The series has been getting increasingly better recognition ever since Persona 3 and P5 has been the fastest selling installment in the series. It's far too soon for Atlus to announce a re-release, but give it a couple more years and something will likely come down the line.

And I really hope there's a female protagonist. I want to be a female Phantom Thief next time around.

Monday, September 11, 2017

In Memoriam: Jerry Pournelle

We lost Jerry Pournelle last Friday, and like a lot of senior authors in my field, I only happened to meet him because I had won the Writers of the Future contest. While he had been in declining health these past few years, that didn't discourage him from traveling or attending conventions, even as recently as a couple weeks ago when he went to DragonCon.

Jerry was the kind of man who embodied the word "cantankerous" more than any other person I've ever met. It was difficult to argue with him, because not only was he sharp and opinionated, but he was also hard of hearing.

As a newbie in the field I was afraid to approach him, because I figured getting away with a light burn would be a best case scenario. I probably would not have talked to him at all if Brennan Harvey hadn't approached him first at our local Loscon convention, where Jerry was a regular. Brennan waved me over and introduced me to Jerry as a former WotF winner.

I figured Jerry had forgotten all about me, and even though I introduced myself again, he still didn't recall my name. That was all right. There are a dozen winners every year and after a while I'd be surprised if anyone could remember all the names. By then it had been a few years, so forgetting me wouldn't be unusual. But then Jerry asked me to tell him what my winning story was.

I explained that my story was called "Living Rooms" and it was about the daughter of a magician who had come home to discover her father had passed away, leaving her with a magical house, if only she can stave off a rival magician who wishes to claim it.

Jerry did not remember my name, but he remembered my story.

Each quarter of Writers of the Future has four judges. I had known who three of mine were, but the fourth had remained a mystery. It turned out that Jerry was the fourth. I was surprised, because he's a hard science fiction author, and my piece was clearly fantasy, but as Larry Niven told me, it's not that Jerry disliked fantasy. He just didn't write it himself.

For the next two Loscons, whenever I ran into him and had to introduce myself again, I always told him my story, because otherwise he wouldn't remember.

But once he did, it was easy to talk to him again, and he was an entertaining man to listen to. He was one of the first established authors I told the premise of my upcoming novel to. At the time I was nervous, because speaking about it was like jinxing it, but Jerry liked the idea. He laughed, with a big smile on his face, and said it sounded good.

It was incredibly encouraging, and I hope when it finally comes out, other people will smile and laugh as well.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Otome Has Grown in the US

When I was a kid, things that were considered girl games were more like Strawberry Shortcake. Take a popular girl toy property, slap it on a video game, and that made it a game for girls.

When I think of the female-oriented games I play now, I usually think of otome visual novels, which have surprisingly caught on in the US. When Hakuoki first landed a few years ago I picked it up as a novelty, not realizing that it was the opening of a floodgate. Sweet Fuse landed shortly after from the same US publisher, Aksys, and though it was fun, most of the character designs weren't very appealing and some of the age differences between the teenage protagonist and her potential adult love interests were pretty skeevy.

I thought Sweet Fuse was likely a miscalculation and dampened unethusiasm for anything that wasn't more Hakuoki, seeing that Aksys ended up releasing the latter over and over again on just about every platform available (and is still re-releasing more Hakuoki with new, bonus content).

But then more stuff landed. Otomate released Amnesia on Steam via its own international branch and the indie scene developed. Re:Alistair, Seduce Me, and The Blind Griffin are all free or name your price English-language originals that serve as introductions to the developers' commercial works, but even at the price of free, they're all good, though much shorter than the average Otomate title. (I particularly like The Blind Griffin for letting me play a Chinese protag in Roaring 20's San Francisco.) And they're just the tip of the iceberg.

A quick scan through Steam will uncover dozens more, mostly indie, though there are a few from more established publishers, particularly from Japan, Korea, and China, and though I'm not a mobile gamer it seems like iOS and Android has tons of them, of which Mystic Messenger is probably the most prominent. The Vita is still the flagship for most of the non-mobile otome produced by Japan.

Otome is common enough now that we have Hatoful Boyfriend (in which the player romances pigeons) which wouldn't work as a parody of the genre without some level of genre knowledge to begin with. I mean sure, it can be passed off as a dating sim just to get the point across that the goal is romance, but what the player is doing isn't really dating. Usually an otome is like playing through a choose your own adventure romance novel with fewer choices and more novel. (And lots of lovely pictures!)

Now there are more coming out than I can reasonably expect to play, even if I limit it just to Otomate translations (which is admittedly my favorite publisher, because they usually have a very engaging story beyond the romance and they don't use stat-raising mechanics). I'm currently sitting with Norn9: Var Commons in my backlog. I bought it last year because Aksys had a sale at Anime Expo and I probably won't get around to it this year either.

I'm mildly curious about Period: Cube, but I don't have time to add it right now, and supposedly Bad Apple Wars is coming later this fall. Aksys has already announced three more otome titles for next year, and Otomate, which makes the bulk of otome that Aksys localizes, just announced eight new titles at their Otomate Party event this past weekend, not counting fandiscs and new installments of existing series.

It's a way to look at what we might see down the line in 2019, and I figure Aksys will pick up the cream of the crop.

I have no idea how the writing's going to be, because that's what really decides whether it's a good game, but my personal hope is that Variable Barricade makes the cut.

Otome heroines are often sweet, compassionate characters without rough edges for the guys to fall in love with. At most she might be "spunky" but never too assertive. Variable Barricade's protagonist looks like she's ready to kick the asses of all her over the top suitors. While I'm sure romance works out in the end, having a combative protagonist could be a lot of fun.

At this point I think otome is here to stay. Even if all the Asian publishers pulled out, the indie scene is strong enough to keep going, and it's better to have too much fluffy romance gaming than not enough!