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‘Persona 5’ Could Be The Most Important JRPG Since ‘Final Fantasy VII’

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Releasing early in the lifespan of the original PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII was a cross-demographic smash hit that elevated Japanese role playing games out of the shadows and into the mainstream, helping to usher in what many consider to be a golden age for the genre. While the Final Fantasy series had a small but dedicated following on Nintendo consoles prior to the release of VII, and critical response to the games had been largely positive, Final Fantasy VII was the kind of success story that can’t be replicated by any conventional means. It was the right game in the right place at the right time; a perfect storm of ideas that were new and exciting for mainstream gamers with superb marketing that appealed to a demographic generally skeptical of role playing games, and a focus on mature, long-form storytelling that was instrumental in the Sony-led changing of public perception for video games from that of a childish pursuit to a cool and high-tech art-form for a more grown-up audience.

Final Fantasy VII wasn’t just a video game that reviewed well and sold a few million copies. We get plenty of those every year, and few can ever hope to achieve even a modicum of the cultural relevance and long-lasting influence and appeal that FFVII did. As with Star Wars rekindling a public interest in outer space that resulted in even James Bond going to the moon, and Nirvana causing record label executives to scour Seattle looking for similar sounds to try and sell to misanthropic teenagers tired of cock-rock’s flamboyant excess, the success of Final Fantasy VII paved the way for Japanese role playing games begging to be thrust into the limelight like never before. The original PlayStation served as host to a veritable banquet of JRPG classics, including Final Fantasy VIII and IX, Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, Suikoden II, and Xenogears, and many of those wouldn’t have found their way into the hands of as many gamers as they did without the success of Final Fantasy VII.

It’d be remiss of me to ignore the fact that plenty of mediocre role playing games likely found undue success because of an elevated hunger for games within the genre among consumers who were willing to lower their standards somewhat in order to be satiated. But just as it’d be unfair to blame Faith No More for Limp Bizkit rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ their insipid musical disasterpieces into our ear-holes, so too would it be a mite inequitable to hold Final Fantasy VII responsible for Eternal Eyes being bought or played by anyone, ever. As always, not every game that found success off the back of the story of Cloud and Sephiroth was fully deserving of the attention they received, but an unusually high number of the games were, and are still fondly remembered today.

Have you ever noticed how weird it is that Cloud is standing with Aeris’ body, but when he lets her go she floats downwards like fifty feet to the bottom of the lake? What the hell is he standing on? It doesn’t even make sense.

As is the case with any trend, eventually the collective eyes of the gaming community wandered to other genres, and by the time the PlayStation 2 arrived in the early 2000s Japanese role playing games began to enter a slump that they still have not truly recovered from. It’s not to say that there haven’t been any good JRPGs in the last few generations – there has – but rather that the quality to quantity ratio within the genre has practically inverted since the glory days of the mid to late ’90s. The Tales series has been a reliable if unremarkable franchise capable of, on occasion, doing just enough to scratch the itches of those pining for the JRPGs of yesteryear, while more niche titles like the Hyperdimension Neputunia series have found a small audience but failed to appeal to critics or consumers on a wider scale. Ni No Kuni managed to garner critical praise and also sold well beyond publisher expectations in the West, but was one of only a handful of JRPGs to make any kind of a splash during the last generation of consoles.

As the vanguard of the JRPG boom on the SNES and the original PlayStation, the Final Fantasy series managed to maintain enough cache with gamers beyond the PSOne era to ensure that each iteration of the series would be met with media interest and positive – if not always stellar – commercial successes. But in a desperate bid to recapture the mainstream appeal of earlier Final Fantasy titles, Square Enix repeatedly stumbled with misguided attempts at reinventing the franchise, alienating many of their long-standing fans while also failing to garner enough new ones to justify the moves.

Final Fantasy X was a popular game, but changes to many of the systems that fans of the series had come to love were considered sacrilege by some, and the cheesy, J-Pop infused Final Fantasy X-2 was widely condemned as a fun but ultimately superfluous sequel that retroactively diminished some of X‘s narrative heft. Final Fantasy XII was well received critically, but the offline MMO-style gameplay and fetch quest laden storyline were bones of contention for many long time fans of the franchise, and Square Enix’s bizarre obsession with trying to make Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII a thing led to a trilogy of games that while not a complete bust – our features editor Mike swears by XIII-2 – failed to resonate with gamers as intended. The tortured development cycle of Final Fantasy XV – a game that took longer to make than the entirety of Breaking Bad – was a source of amusement and mockery for many within the industry for years, but sales and critical response for the game upon its eventual release were a pleasant surprise, if not enough to quash widespread disappointment that the storyline of the game felt woefully under-cooked.

As Square Enix is now planning a series of downloadable updates to Final Fantasy XV to try and get the game a little closer to the practically unattainable level of quality one expects after ten years of development, something altogether more exciting is happening for Japanese role playing games that we really need to talk about: Persona 5 might just be the most important JRPG since Final Fantasy VII.

Every single screen in Persona 5 pops.

On paper, Persona 5 seems like an odd proposition for a commercial hit. It’s part Japanese role playing game – featuring all of the dungeon crawling, turn based battling, and leveling up that one would expect – and part life simulator, as players must manage the time of the main character as he goes to school, spends time with friends, and potentially finds love in modern Japan. Despite the bizarre juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible genres, and the tough elevator pitch for the main narrative thrust of the game – “It’s kinda like Inception, only there’s a talking cat.”Persona 5 has been showered with superlatives by gaming critics, and is currently sitting pretty at a 94 on Metacrtic as the joint-highest rated JRPG of all time, and the highest rated game on PS4 that isn’t a remaster. For fans of the series, this overwhelmingly positive response should come as little surprise, but those unfamiliar with Persona are probably wondering just what all of the fuss is about.

The Persona series began as a spin-off to Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei franchise on the original PlayStation. As the first game in this new series, Revelations: Persona received moderate critical praise, but failed to make any significant dent in the public consciousness outside of Japan. The game introduced many of the ideas that would become staples for the series going forward, with the story focusing on a group of high school students battling supernatural entities using manifestations of their psyche known as Personae, as well as the game featuring characters, items and monsters that would go on to appear in future installments. Eschewing the traditional fantasy setting and stereotypical character classes that the genre was known for, and focusing on relatable characters being thrown into an extraordinary situation led to the first Persona game garnering a cult following in the West, but not a big enough one for Atlus to fund localization for the sequel, Persona 2: Innocent Sin.

When Persona made the jump to the PS2 the series started gaining some traction in the West. Persona 3 made it to America and then Europe after the PS3 had launched, but glowing reviews from numerous publications and some eye-catching visuals and controversial themes resulted in the game garnering a little more attention than many were expecting, which led to surprising sales outside of Japan. The game was famous for featuring an arresting gameplay mechanic in which the high school aged protagonists were required to shoot themselves in the head in order to release their hidden powers – their Persona – and the striking image of terrified teens ostensibly committing suicide in order to fight was original, troubling, and undeniably cool in equal measure.

Persona 3’s dark themes and stylish presentation made it an unlikely, albeit minor, hit in the West.

Persona 3 was widely praised for the dark tone and mature storytelling that strayed far from what many considered to be the quintessential tropes of Japanese role playing games. In giving players control of an unremarkable teenager thrown into a supernatural battle, Persona 3 stood in stark contrast to what many people thought of as a JRPG – the increasingly po-faced Final Fantasy series or any of the games it inspired – that tended to feature more outlandish characters in a more fantastical setting with a liberal sprinkling of melodrama. Persona 3 was like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of video games; yes, there were fights with demonic creatures and nefarious humans, and the plot contained plenty of horror and grotesquerie, but at its heart, the game was about a normal teenager dealing with normal teenager problems with some demon slaying on the side. The social aspect of the game, more than any of the faux-suicides or readily cosplayable character designs, is what set Persona 3 apart from the pack.

In Persona 3 the protagonist is on a fixed time limit in which he can complete each major dungeon, and eventually the main storyline of the game. Certain pivotal events are destined to happen on a predetermined day, but the time between those moments is free for the player to use as they wish. The social system of Persona 3 was a hit with gamers and critics alike, not just because the various intertwining storylines were unusually well written and acted for the genre, but because allowing the player control of what they could do with their time while also funneling them down linear path allowed Atlus to skillfully sidestep one of the most common issues that players have with Japanese role playing games. Rather than presenting gamers with an often frustratingly linear experience that opens up after forty hours for the completion of side quests before the final battle, or following the Western role playing game approach of freedom at the expense of the overarching narrative, Persona 3 made sure that the storyline of the game was always moving inexorably towards the grand finale, but players were able to do whatever they wanted on days between major plot points.

Persona 4 released two years after Persona 3 in Japan, but the delays to Persona 3 in the West meant that the gap between the two games was much shorter for American and European gamers. Still on the PlayStation 2 well after release of the PlayStation 3, Persona 4 fought an uphill battle for recognition as many gamers had moved on to the next generation of consoles, but the stellar reviews and strong word of mouth for the game coming immediately off the back of Persona 3 led to it managing to stay on top of Amazon’s best selling PS2 games list for over two weeks. While the PS2 was barely supported at that time and so the statistic isn’t quite as impressive as it would have been a couple of years prior, it never the less indicated that the Persona series was making some waves with fans of Japanese role playing games, while perhaps even entertaining some cross-over appeal thanks to the less stereotypical life-sim elements of the gameplay and intelligent writing being championed in reviews.

One of the additional scenes in Persona 4 Golden sees you perform as part of a rock band with the rest of your squad because why not?

Persona 4 used many of the same systems as it’s predecessor, but the storytelling was refined, the battle system improved, and more variation was added to the array of social interactions made available to the player. The story centered around a series of mysterious murders which the player must eventually solve via supernatural means, grounding the tale in some semblance of reality before occasionally veering into more traditional fantasy fare. The narrative of the game was widely praised for touching on numerous heavyweight topics then considered somewhat unusual within the medium, including confusion surrounding sexual orientation, sexism, and gender identity crises, while also maintaining an upbeat and positive outlook that charmed players throughout much of the playing time.

Ultimately, Persona 4 became a sleeper hit for Atlus, finding a small but incredibly dedicated fanbase in the West. Deciding to strike while the iron was hot, Atlus started working on a new and improved version of Persona 4 for the PlayStation Vita called Persona 4 Golden, which revived sales of Sony’s struggling handheld significantly in Japan upon release. Golden instantly became the highest rated Vita game on Metacritic and has yet to be removed from that position more than five years later, while racking up over one million sales on a handheld console with an install base of a little over ten million.

The impressive commercial performance and popular characters of Persona 4 led Atlus to branch the game out into a franchise of its own; there were two separate anime adaptations of the story of the game, a manga sequel, two fighting games using characters from Persona 4 and 3 together, a dancing game spin-off, and an honest to God stage play. While there was a definitive risk of milking Persona 4 dry and inciting a backlash due to overexposure, Atlus was obviously just attempting to keep the series in the public eye in preparation for the eventual release of Persona 5. The good will they had built up with gamers over the few years previous and the overall quality of the various spin-offs prevented any such franchise fatigue kicking in, and the groundwork was laid out for Persona 5 to arrive.

If you finish a battle using a group attack you’re treated to a special screen that’s dedicated to whichever character instigated the attack. No, I don’t know why the cat has a cigar.

For all of the successes that the Persona series had in the build up to the release of Persona 5, it cannot be overstated just how unlikely those successes truly were. Persona 3 and 4 increased the popularity of the series dramatically, but both of those games released on the PS2 once the PS3 was already on the market – a similar set of circumstances that led to the relative commercial failure of Final Fantasy IX, which released for PSOne after the launch of the PS2. Persona 4 Golden later managed to drum up strong sales despite being manacled to a system that had a small install base and was being decimated in units shipped by its closest competitor. The Persona series had always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and still somehow managed to make a name for itself, and now finally with Persona 5 it appears that the stars have aligned for a JRPG to make an impact on a scale unseen for many years.

Persona 5 released in the West last week to rave reviews from critics and instantly shot to the top of the UK sales chart. While it would be foolish to expect Persona 5 to be selling like Call of Duty, or even Final Fantasy XV, early sales figures are very positive and point to the game being the best selling entry in the franchise so far. Persona 5, unlike its predecessors, is launching on the most popular and relevant video game console in the world, and it’s got the critical backup and strong word of mouth necessary to be the breakout hit that the series so richly deserves. But beyond all that, the potential success of Persona 5 could be just the shot in the arm that the Japanese role playing game genre really needs.

The game features an eye-popping visual style that has received almost unanimous critical praise, and looks utterly unique when held up in comparison to other Japanese role playing games. The game visually pulsates with a sense of style unlike practically anything else on the market. The menus and transitional screens exhude more personality than entire games – so much so that they inspired a series of amusing memes on the Internet last week – while the soundtrack made up from a fusion of bizarrely eclectic musical styles seems purpose built to get stuck in your head for days. The battle system has been streamlined and refined, taking much of the busy work and trial and error away from the player, while still providing a satisfying challenge. Persona 5 is a JRPG that’s genuinely slick and cool, and in a world in which the Final Fantasy series has devolved into a Japanese boy band driving around in a car for forty hours completing fetch quests, that’s something that every fan of Japanese role playing games should be celebrating.

Persona 5 battles are ridiculously stylish.

But Persona 5 isn’t all style over substance. This is a hundred hour adventure featuring dozens of unique and memorable characters, touching on subjects as varied as bullying, sexual assault, murder, the nature of justice, hacktivism groups, the influence of social media, and slavery. The overarching story of the game is compelling right from the word go, presented as a series of flashbacks being told by the unnamed protagonist after his arrest. He’s part of a group known as the Phantom Thieves, that for unknown reasons have been blessed with the ability to enter the subconscious of other people in order to steal their twisted desires. One day you’ll be living the life of a normal teenager; hanging out with friends, working a part time job, studying for exams, or playing video games. The next you’ll be breaking into the mind of a teacher who sexually abuses students so you can remove the evil from within his heart and attempt to force him into confessing his crimes. Also there’s a talking cat.

The characters are well written and acted, and the storylines connected to each of the various friends you’ll acquire throughout the game give you a reason to care about NPCs that would give you little more than two lines of dialogue and a fetch quest to complete in many other games. The dungeons are villain specific, each taking the form of an elaborate heist that the Phantom Thieves must undertake, featuring puzzles to solve, unexpected gameplay changes, and some superb boss fights. Variety ensures that the game never becomes a seemingly endless grind of slaughtering enemies for experience points, and the finely tuned battle system gives the player an opportunity to systematically take apart enemy groups by targeting their specific weaknesses if you think about what you’re doing.

For a genre that is often seen as oppressively stuffy and too reliant on character tropes and recurring themes, Persona 5 is a breath of fresh air; at once steadfastly proud to stick to it’s traditional JRPG roots, while simultaneously unafraid to throw the rule book out of the window in service of a more palatable experience for genre newcomers and mainstays alike. Persona 5 won’t recreate the success of Final Fantasy VII in terms of influence, or how that game was one of the primary reasons that PlayStation became the number one brand in gaming. Nothing will. But with Japanese role playing games having found themselves in a seemingly inescapable doldrums for the last decade and a half, it’s perhaps the most important game for the genre since then. With Final Fantasy jumping from one reinvention to the next while failing to address any of the recurring problems holding the series back, the stage is set for a new contender to set the standard for what the genre can be going forward. If there’s any justice in the world, it’ll be Persona 5.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Kageyama

    April 14, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    Persona 5 is just too much anime and more of the same old formula they started with P3. P5 is not in the same place FF7 was in its time.

  2. Neil

    April 14, 2017 at 9:13 pm

    Well, I’m glad this shining star is in this generation. I’m 40 hours in and it is excellent!

    Someone said turn based is dead? Idiots…

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‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ Review: Moon’s Haunted but Still Shines

‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ returns to a familiar destination but Bungie is reworking Destiny with each expansion and Shadowkeep is no exception.

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Destiny 2 Shadowkeep Review

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep may be a return to a familiar destination, the Moon, but Bungie continues the trend of reworking Destiny with each new expansion, and Shadowkeep is no exception. Replete with a reworked season pass system, progression systems, customization options, sandbox re-tuning and quest interface, Shadowkeep is both a welcome iteration and extension of the existing Destiny 2 experience offering more RPG-esque player agency than Destiny has ever seen before. While the game is still haunted by some overly familiar issues, Shadowkeep is a welcome expansion and a promising start to the third year of Destiny 2.

Old Haunting Grounds

The Moon isn’t the only familiar face in Shadowkeep. Keeping with tradition, Eris Morn has returned from a long absence for another dark, lunar expansion (the first being D1′s The Dark Below when the character was first introduced) as she investigates a disturbance deep within the Moon. Quite literally haunted by the past, Eris has called upon the Guardians to assist her in finding the source of the phantoms plaguing the Moon and vanquishing “Nightmare” versions of familiar visages from the past.

All is not entirely as old players might remember. An immense hive structure, the Scarlet Keep, now overshadows previously unexplored territory on the Lunar surface. New Lost Sectors hide in the depths of the Moon, and new secrets a la the Dreadnaught or the Dreaming City lie waiting to be discovered by inquisitive players. And at the very center of the expansion an ancient, unknown threat lies in wait, an ominous foreshadowing of the trials ahead.

While the expansion does a decent job ensuring the familiar haunts don’t feel overly recycled, it’s hard to say Shadowkeep makes the most of the Moon. The campaign opens on such a high note as players storm the moon in an unexpectedly matchmade sequence before individual Fireteams independently uncover an unanticipated twist that absolutely shatters expectation. Unfortunately, the narrative quickly devolves into uninteresting fetch quests that fail to live up to the intrigue of the initial mission nor live up to the narrative heights of some of the most memorable missions the Moon previously housed including fan favorites The Sword of Crota and Lost to Light to name a few. That’s tough company to keep, and Shadowkeep fails to measure up.

Similarly, a bit of that intrigue is reintroduced in Shadowkeep‘s final mission, but, like the campaign as a whole, it’s over before the player knows it and fails to live up to the precedent set by previous, lengthier campaign conclusions. More mileage is gotten out of the narrative and destination in the post-game in the way of a new weapon farming system, a new activity known as Nightmare hunts that play like mini Strikes, and a Strike proper, but that does little to alleviate the disappointment of an overly terse campaign that reads like a teaser for what’s to come over a distinct, fleshed-out story.

A New Era, a New Season

Part of that is presumably courtesy of a shift in Bungie’s approach to content releases. While the previous expansion, Forsaken, similarly opted for procedurally released content over the course of the season, Bungie has doubled down on that strategy with Shadowkeep ensuring there’s something new to be experienced each week that players sign in. While certain activities have alway arrived post-launch including raids, dungeons, and exotic weapon pursuits, Shadowkeep and its “Season of the Undying” has seen new PvE and PvP activities launched after the expansion’s initial drop, adding to an already lengthy list of Destiny to-dos.

Central to the season is the new PvE, matchmade activity, the Vex Offensive, which pits six players against waves of Vex combatants paired and features some minor puzzle elements, all for the sake of earning a series of weapons exclusive to the mode. While the Black Garden locale of the mode is certainly eye-catching, the Offensive, with its recycled mechanics and familiar enemies, doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond that. It might pale in comparison to activities introduced in past seasons (like Warmind‘s Escalation Protocol, or last season’s Menagerie), but is intentionally terse, intended to match this new seasonal philosophy, and will be removed from the game after Season of the Undying (though the exclusive arsenal will still be available in the loot pool obtainable through undisclosed means). Like the Vex themselves, the Vex Offensive might not seem like much independently, but collectively is a piece of a greater whole challenging and rewarding players for participating within the specific season.

Bungie is further defining each season with the inclusion of a seasonal artifact and a season pass system. The artifact, again only available for the season, offers players an avenue for additional, limitless Power gains while also offering unlockable gameplay mods encouraging players to utilize specific classes and builds. The Oppressive Darkness mod, for example, debuffs enemies hit by void grenades, encouraging players to construct discipline-oriented, void builds. Another mod, Thunder Coil, increases the power of arc melee attacks by fifty percent, giving all new life to the Hunter’s Arcstrider subclass. Meanwhile, the season pass operates similar to that of Fortnite or any number of games and replaces the previous cosmetic only level up system of Destiny 2‘s past. From the season’s outset, any and all experience goes toward unlocking rewards from the pass including new armor, armor ornaments, exclusive weapons and exotics, and engrams. The experience requirement for each level is static, meaning progress is fair and steady throughout and never feels throttled. Both seasonal systems are fantastic new additions that reward players for playing the game while making experience gains more purposeful than any other time in Destiny‘s endgame.

New Duds to Boot

Shadowkeep also marks the debut of Armor 2.0, a new system that allows players more agency in character customization than ever before. Whereas armor previously rolled with random perks and a roll of only three stats (Mobility, Recovery, and Resilience), Armor 2.0 comes with no perks and six stats as Destiny 1‘s Intellect, Discipline, and Strength (determining the charge rates of player’s super, grenade, and melee abilities) make their triumphant return. Instead, Armor 2.0 has slots for modifiers so players can pick and choose whatever perks they want just as long as they’ve unlocked those mods. Mods are acquired from most activities, while enhanced mods (better versions of certain traditional mods) are exclusive to some of the game’s more challenging content. While the grind for mods seems excessive in the face of the rest of the game’s grind, it’s a one-time affair, some of the best mods are unlocked via the seasonal artifact, and the payoff is astounding, providing customization like never before.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Axe to Grind

Speaking to the grind, Destiny has often struggled and failed to find the perfect balance of meaningful power climb and tedious grinds recycling the same old activities. Luckily, at the outset of the climb towards max power, Shadowkeep strikes a much better balance centered on beloved ritual and new and or seasonal activities. Power drops now operate on a clearly labeled, tiered system, incentivizing players to prioritize new or challenging activities for maximum gains. Ritual activities (Strikes, Crucible, and Gambit), though tier one, retain their relevance by offering multiple weekly powerful drops for match completions, vendor bounties completed, and rank progression. Previous, otherwise irrelevant avenues towards power have been retired, but this is a welcome reduction and there is no shortage of powerful drops in the climb to max power. That isn’t to say that the grind couldn’t be shorter ensuring more players can participate in endgame activities when they first arrive, but progression generally feels smoother than any time in Destiny‘s past.

Conversely, content flow might overwhelm casual and even dedicated players as there’s simply too much to do and grind for players tight on time. Bungie now considers Destiny and MMO with proper RPG mechanics, and, in terms of time commitment, that really shows with Shadowkeep. On a certain week, a player might have an accomplished week in-game after sinking only three to five hours into the game. Other weeks the game seems to demand closer to the ten to twenty-hour range. One week, for example, saw the release of the new dungeon, a new Crucible game mode, an exotic quest, a new public event, and the start of the Festival of the Lost, a limited time, Halloween event. That’s simply too much, feels like poor pacing, and favors streamers, Destiny content creators, and hardcore players for whom Destiny is their exclusive hobby, a burgeoning theme with Season of the Undying. While it’s certainly exciting that there’s always something to do in D2, it doesn’t seem true to the game’s roots as a hybrid, a shooter with MMO elements, that could be taken at a more casual pace but still offered an engaging endgame for the dedicated audience. Now, there’s only an endgame with no end in sight.

A Better Destiny Awaits

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for players who want to pay a minimal price for seemingly unending content, and in that regard, Shadowkeep is a steal. A sensational new raid (minus some finicky new mechanics), a foreboding dungeon, an immense new arsenal to grind for, and a better tuned PvP and PvE sandbox in which to enjoy them mean Shadowkeep will keep Guardians’ attention the whole season long and is an excellent proof of concept for the seasonal structure going forward. If Bungie can keep this pace up, year three of Destiny 2 could easily be the best year in franchise history. As a general caution though, Destiny 2 now clearly caters to the hardcore, requires MMO levels of commitment, and is best enjoyed with a regular group; casual, time-restricted, and solo players beware. It might not be the best single expansion release in franchise history (that’s still a toss-up between The Taken King and Forsaken), but, beginning with Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, the third year of D2 is the closest the tumultuous title has ever come to Bungie’s ambitious vision for the shared-world shooter and the game fans have been waiting for these past five years.

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What Are Some of the Switch’s Best Indie Devs Making?

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The Nintendo Switch has quickly become the preferred platform for some of the most talented indie studios in the industry. Its pick-up-and-play form factor and Nintendo’s concerted effort to court smaller developers this generation (complete with indie-specific Directs) has resulted in a library that’s positively flourished.

Despite the eShop falling victim to some of the discoverability and shovelware issues that long plagued Steam, there have been some real standouts over the years. Since video games take quite a while to produce, there’s often speculation as to what some of the premier developers have been working on. Let’s take a look at four of the most recognized indie studios on the platform and have some fun trying to figure out what they might be up to.


Sidebar Games

It’s hard to believe that 2017’s Golf Story was Sidebar Games’ first project as a studio. The two-man team from down under balanced a delightful dose of Australian-tinged humor with clear callbacks to the Mario sports games of old to deliver one of the best Switch exclusives in 2017, bar none.

Unlike the other studios on this list, Sidebar has been extremely silent on development progress; we can only glean bits and pieces from the few interviews they’ve done. We know the game has been in development for roughly two years and that Sidebar was still in active development as of March 2019 when they put out the call for a pixel artist for their next project. There’s also a fair chance that the new game will either be Switch-exclusive or target Switch first, seeing as how Golf Story is still one of the Switch’s top 10 best-selling indie games to date as of Spring 2019. If exclusivity worked so well the first time, why not try it again?

What Can We Expect?

Whatever Sidebar is working on, it’s almost guaranteed to be single-player and story-focused. One half of the dev team, Andrew, has gone on record multiple times saying that he’s “very partial to story modes.” This also players into one of their strengths; though there was a great time to be had with Golf Story’s golf, it was all elevated by the game’s ridiculous-yet-lovable characters and wacky situational humor.

Since the team has already deconfirmed a sequel as their next project, there’s really not much to go on. While I’d personally love them to tackle something Mario Tennis-inspired next, there’s a good chance they’ll avoid sports altogether. As long as the wit found in Golf Story is alive and well, though, their core audience is sure to be interested.


Fabraz

Despite being incredibly simple from a visual standpoint, the deceivingly charming Slime-San is still one of the best platformers to come out in recent memory. The game’s striking three-color art style isn’t just unique, but it’s also ingrained into the platforming mechanics in inventive ways. Beyond having a look all its own and a stiff challenge for players who wanted it, however, Fabraz went the extra mile to build a fun cast of characters and even a hub world to explore outside of the main game. It was a pleasant surprise from a relatively unknown developer at the time.

Fabraz has been anything but complacent since Slime-san’s launch. The studio released two free content expansions, ported the game to other consoles, and even got into the publishing business. No matter their other ventures, however, the team has made sure to tease their next project every so often since the start of 2019.

What Can We Expect?

Fabraz speculated that their new game was already roughly 60% complete at the start of October. Since it only began production in December of 2018, it’s safe to assume that the next game will be relatively small in scope. It’s also likely that Fabraz’s next outing won’t be “Slime-san 2,” since the original game received such heavy content additions months after release (including an expansion literally titled “Sheeple’s Sequel.” The team certainly knows how to make magic from very limited resources, so it’ll be interesting to see what they can do with a bit more of a budget, a new art style, and tons more experience.


Game Atelier/FDG Entertainment

It feels like Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom came out of nowhere. The team at FDG Entertainment had published indie darling Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King just the year prior and the console port of Oceanhorn before that, but there wasn’t much talk about FDG’s capabilities as a developer. As it turns out, however, Game Atelier’s choice to bring them on as a co-developer was the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to Monster Boy. Five long years of development later and fans were treated to one of the best platformers in recent memory.

Though it launched on all consoles, Monster Boy famously sold eight times more on Switch than PS4 and Xbox One combined, reminiscent of the sales of Blossom Tales on Switch. Needless to say, FDG’s next title will be targeted squarely as the Nintendo community. But what could that next project be?

What Can We Expect?

A Monster Boy sequel. FDG recently celebrated their collaboration with Game Atelier on Twitter and announced that they’re collaborating once more. The commercial and critical success of Monster Boy can only lead one to believe they’re hard at work on a follow-up together. Thankfully, with such a solid base to work off of now, this one shouldn’t take nearly as long to release.


Chucklefish

Chucklefish has garnered a great deal of respect in the indie community as both a developer (Starbound, WarGroove) and frequent publisher (Stardew Valley, Timespinner, the upcoming Eastward, and others). Their eagerness to bring so many of their top-notch titles to Switch has made them one of–if not the–most lauded indie studios on the platform. If it’s coming from Chucklefish, there’s a good chance it’ll be of the highest quality.

What Can We Expect?

Witchbrook! Chucklefish announced the game way back in 2017 and instantly had both Harry Potter and Little Witch Academia fans foaming at the mouth. It’s a magical school simulation/RPG where players will attend class, learn spells, make friends, date, and work towards graduation. The company’s CEO and lead designer, Finn, has been incredibly open about the game’s development from the beginning. In fact, he made the ever-changing Witchbrook design document public in August of 2019 to give some insight into the game design and planning process.

Since there’s already so much we know about where the game’s going, this is going to be used as more of a “Hopes for Witchbrook” section. To keep it short, let’s focus on two of the game’s most make-or-break elements: dating and world-building.

Dating

One of the things many RPGs struggle with is making dating feel meaningful after the relationship starts. People love romancing in Stardew Valley, but the experience itself is really rather shallow; bring characters their favorite items, talk to them daily, experience a few touching cutscenes and voila! All that’s left is to put a ring on it and have a baby.

My hope is that in Witchbrook, the real fun starts after the relationship begins. Being able to have lunch together, go to festivals, celebrate anniversaries, plan outings, and even introduce them to the player’s in-game friends would go a long way in making the relationship feel more than a ribbon to be crossed.

World-Building

When someone asks the seminal question “What fictional world would you love to live in?” the world of Harry Potter almost always tops to list (right next to Pokémon, that is). It isn’t just because of magic itself or the emotional ties people have to the cast, but more so because of the immense amounts of personality and lore J.K. Rowling infused into the world. From the dark history of Hogwarts to the vast array of magical beasts to the establishment of Quidditch, there is a whole movie and video game series that has been created based on mere slices of the Harry Potter universe.

Naturally, it’d be silly to expect Chucklefish to achieve as much depth in an indie project as one of the most successful authors of all time did over the course of seven books, but there’s still plenty of potential. Since the game will primarily take place at the school, exploring why the school was created and how it’s changed over the years could be quite interesting. Then there’s how different populations of the world at large feel about magic, how various magical species play a part, the favorite magic-imbued pastimes of students in the world of Witchbrook, and so on. The key will be to infuse magic into every element of the world (and gameplay) as naturally as possible. And after reading through the extensive design doc, I’ve no doubt Chucklefish will be able to pull it off.


The indie scene on the Switch is thriving more than ever. New talented developers are making the platform their home every day, and those who’ve already proved themselves are hard at work on their next premium experience. The next wave of releases from these studios can’t come soon enough.

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‘Death Stranding’: And Now for Something Completely Different

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Death Stranding Slow Connectivity

Video gaming as a medium has often been perceived as little more than a toy. Even with Nintendo pushing the NES as a part of the home and more than just a toy– a strategy they’d adopt again for the Wii– there are still many who see games as toys, rather than an expression of an art form. It makes perfect sense, though. If there’s one thing modern video game culture has pushed front and center this past decade, it’s instant satisfaction. As big-budget games embrace homogeneity, the medium’s priorities have shifted from capitalizing on its inherent interactivity to making sure gamers are never bored with their $60 toy. Reggie Fils-Aime famously said “If it’s not fun, why bother?” for a reason, but when every big-budget game is paced the same, structured the same, and plays the same, where’s the fun to be found? 

About Death Stranding…

It’s far too early to even assume what kind of impact Death Stranding will have on the medium & industry (if any), but as one of the last big budgets games to release in 2019, Hideo Kojima’s first crack at the “strand game genre” is a nice note to cap the decade off on– one that serves as an almost necessary palette cleanser as the medium heads into the 2020s. Death Stranding offers audiences a chance to breathe, to look at themselves in the mirror, and to reconnect. Not just with the world and others, but with a medium built on interactivity. 

Hideo Kojima is often criticized for his cutscene ratio, to the point where it’s not unusual to see critics suggest he just make a film, but the fact of the matter is that most games do need a story. Not just that, video games have the potential to present a story better than any other medium. Readers and viewers can place themselves in the shoes of their protagonists, but a game makes the player become the protagonist. How we control our characters, how we play, how we interact with a virtual world– all this is a reflection of ourselves, one that only the gaming medium can offer. 

Not that it often does, at least not meaningfully. Modern developers are afraid to lose consumer interest, and the increasing shift towards the “games as a service” model has ensured that gameplay loops are simple to pick up, simple to get into, and simple to stay into. Games are something to be played with– toys. And there’s immense value in that. Video games can be a fantastic way to reduce stress & clear one’s thoughts regardless of how they’re designed, but such an approach means that the average gamer is going to be accustomed to gameplay loops that are structurally derivative of one another. 

On the flip side, there are the games that prioritize narrative too much, or simply devalue their own gameplay with extraneous content. From Hideo Kojima’s own gameography, this is a mistake he clearly made with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Even from this decade, it can be argued that what little importance Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain placed on the story ended up hurting it in the long run because it distracted from the core gameplay loop. There’s a reason so many developers follow similar game structures and build off similar foundations: they’re reliable, they get the job done, and it does result in great games. Both The Last of Us and God of War (2018) are clear examples of how mechanically homogenous & predictable games have gradually become this past decade, but they’re still great games.

Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time.

Death Stranding is most comparable to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and perhaps The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but really only on the most surface of levels. Death Stranding has AAA backing, but it has the creativity and ingenuity of a modern indie. While AAA developers have lined up for uniformity, the indie half of the medium has arguably never been better. Those who grew up alongside video games are now developing their own, calling back to and even evolving forgotten genres. All the while, AAA games only move closer to the Disneyfication of movie production– hit all the key demographics, make it “accessible” for everyone, and make sure there are no real ideals or beliefs. No need to upset potential consumers, right? 

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Death Stranding was backed by Sony and developed by a massive development team, but Hideo Kojima’s direction is far more in-line with the modern indie scene than that of his AAA cohorts. Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time. It’s slow to start, slow to pick up, and even the core gameplay loop is slow. It takes hours before players get their first vehicle, and even longer before they finally get a weapon. Death Stranding saves its actual core gameplay loop for so late in the experience that it’s not unreasonable to suggest the game sees an entire genre shift halfway through. But that’s missing the point. Death Stranding’s “genre shift” is only going to feel so for those who don’t want to engage with the first half’s crawl– those who just want to play with a toy. 

Of course, just wanting something simple and immediately engaging to play is fair enough. For working adults with limited time to play a game, in particular, but not every game is going to resonate with everyone, even if a game like Death Stranding is designed for anyone. Death Stranding seems inaccessible & foreign in a generation where every big genre release plays like the last, but between a myriad of difficulty options and an online system designed to make the player’s life easier– one that works & works well– Death Stranding takes the medium’s interactivity to its next logical step: connectivity. Real connectivity, though. A connection that goes beyond playing against or with someone for a few minutes. 

In Death Stranding, players can leave a tangible mark on, and in, the world. Players can build structures for others, share with others, and just do something as simple as “liking” others. Those opening hours are incredibly valuable as– without the means to kill or fight back– players are forced to interact with the game world on a deeper level beyond combat. Death Stranding takes its time developing its gameplay loop, drip-feeding weapons, and concepts. Even the online component opens itself slowly, forcing players to understand what it means to be alone before they can forge real connections– with the world, others, or themselves. 

This is what Hideo Kojima understands better than the majority of modern AAA developers: games can connect a feeling directly to the player. Death Stranding’s best moments (as any should be) stem from gameplay. Kojima’s storytelling is engaging as ever, but it exists to bolster the gameplay– as does the slow pacing, as does the aggressive enemy AI, as does locking out weapons for hours on end– everything in Death Stranding is ultimately in service of connecting players to Sam in a way that feels genuinely meaningful. Through Sam, audiences can observe an America that’s in ruins, but one that society is rebuilding.

As Sam reconnects America, opportunities arise to finish bridges for others, leave supplies in remote areas, or just warn of dangers ahead. It’s very Dark Souls-esque in nature, but with a gameplay loop that minimizes traditional action, Death Stranding is the rare AAA game that’s bold enough to embrace the medium and everything it represents, for better or worse. A video game interacts with an audience in a way that books and film can’t. Controlling an avatar is an intimate act and reflects us better than most might realize. Death Stranding recognizes this fact, turns its back on modern gaming mainstays, and attempts to reconnect the medium together. 

Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

AAA gaming and the indie scene shouldn’t be divided. A gameplay loop doesn’t need instant satisfaction to be engaging. Story and gameplay shouldn’t feel disconnected. Standard online multiplayer can be more rewarding when PvP elements are tossed to the wayside or even just outright ignored. Death Stranding resembles the average AAA title in many respects, but it allows itself to be eclectic, off-putting, & sincerely unfiltered– in regards to politics, human nature, video games themselves. Only time will tell if “strand games” will take off, but keep in mind that the stealth genre didn’t exist when the hit “action” game Metal Gear released for the MSX2 in 1987. As Death Stranding makes abundantly clear, everything changes with time. 

The 2010s have not been a bad decade for the medium, far from it. The past ten years have seen truly legendary consoles and games come out of the woodwork, but it’s impossible to deny the shift that occurred (and had been occurring) in AAA game development– one that’s driven the medium far away from meaningful interactivity, where flavor of the month games long to be played for all eternity, like Toy Story-esque monstrosities given form. Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

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