Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Review
After a year of desolate and grim role-playing games such as Dark Souls III and Darkest Dungeon, Atlus’ latest project, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, stands out as a vibrant, upbeat departure from the current gaming landscape. Combining two pillars of the JRPG genre, the newest Wii U exclusive blends the complex turn-based combat of the Shin Megami Tensei series with characters and aesthetics from Fire Emblem to create something wholly unique to tide fans over until the inevitable, yet the far-off release of Persona 5. Although a few questionable design decisions keep it from ever reaching the same heights of its predecessors, the directors of the oft under-appreciated Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey have created one of the most utterly unique RPGs I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Since its announcement in 2013, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE’s development was kept tightly under wraps, due to the developers’ struggle to decide on the projects’ direction. Although it was originally conceived to resemble Fire Emblem’s grid-based, tactical encounters, (reminiscent of Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor Overclocked’s grid combat), Fire Emblem’s developers, Intelligent Software, encouraged the Atlus team to stick to what they know, resulting in gameplay that is more similar to traditional JRPGs like Persona. Because of this, the Fire Emblems aspects of the game are significantly downplayed, in favor of establishing a more contemporary setting, akin to Atlus’ previous games. What truly sets it apart from its competition is its unabashed obsession with Japanese culture and tongue-in-cheek presentation. True to its marketing, J-pop ballads, endearing idols, and otaku staples create a sense of enthusiasm that is sorely lacking in modern games, embracing its inherent ridiculousness and capitalizing on the spectacle of watching teenagers undergo Sailor Moon style transformation to destroy nightmarish creatures from another world. Famed art director Fumitaka Yano turns in his most expressive work yet, seamlessly combining the styles of not only the Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem, but incorporating contemporary Japanese aesthetics from cultural centers like Shibuya. This energetic tone informs every aspect of the game; crowds of monsters cheer on our protagonists as they move across the battlefield; singing and dancing become integral to the narrative itself, even the menus are dripping with style and polish. Every event is framed as an audio-visual spectacle of grand proportions, transforming even the most mundane tasks like crafting new items and re-outfitting your party into quirky moments of excitement. Halfway through the main story, I’ve pulled myself away from the TV just to write this review, and even though there are a few issues that are impeding my enjoyment, the game does so many things right that it was worth the wait.
Having begun Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE shortly after viewing the newly released psychological horror film The Neon Demon (coincidentally also concerned with the importance of entertainers in our world, but with a much more grim premise), I experienced a veritable tonal whiplash from the juxtaposition between the two. Though it’s possible that this colored my initial impressions of the game, I found its opening sections to be a bit lackluster. Before it becomes clear that the game is purposefully poking fun at cultural stereotypes and genre conventions, the opening cinematic sets up a more dramatic narrative for the game that is then almost completely resolved and demystified in the span of two chapters. Luckily, the story quickly assures players that it’s hardly taking itself seriously, and mainly serves as a loose means to create a world where aspiring entertainers can magically defeat demons. The basic premise revolves around a group of teenagers joining a talent agency called Fortuna Entertainment that serves as a front to investigate the mysterious beings that are invading Japan, known as Mirages. Our heroes soon realize they possess the ability to control and ally with these mirages, who are revealed to be a mix of iconic Shin Megami Tensei enemies and Fire Emblem characters. Legendary warriors like Chrom, Caeda, Cain and Tharja accompany the main cast as they search for a way to save the world. Although it’s great to finally see Fire Emblem get recognition on a home console (outside of Smash Bros), I was disappointed with how underused these characters were throughout the story. Lazily hampering all of the Mirages with amnesia for the majority of the story, they add little to the narrative apart from playing the typical “out-of-time-and-context” trope and the occasional meta-joke. Tharja’s iconic stalking of the main protagonists and Chrom’s cheesy-yet-inspirational speech to his teammates are brilliant moments for fans of the franchises, but are too few and far between to leave a lasting impact or affect newcomers. Instead, the majority of the story is dedicated to the trials and tribulations of a troupe of walking anime clichés such as the bland protagonist, the clumsy Mary Sue love interest and the token “cool” best friend. Despite its predictability, the plot has kept me invested for many chapters thanks to the endearing writing and lighthearted tone. One’s appreciation of the storyline will be almost entirely based on their opinion on Atlus games and anime in general, and while I personally enjoyed it immensely, it certainly isn’t breaking any new grounds, nor will it appeal to everyone.
What really solidifies Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE as a worthy JRPG is its show-stopping combat system. Fusing Fire Emblem’s simplistic “weapon triangle” system with Shin Megami Tensei’s expansive array of magic, battles pit three selectable party members against any number of monsters, each with their own tactics, weaknesses, and abilities. After learning the basics of attacking, using EP to perform special skills, managing items, and guarding in the prologue, the game gradually introduces a plethora of mechanics that come together to create one of the most intuitive and enjoyable fighting systems I’ve seen all year. The main draw comes from the implementation of “Sessions,” combo attacks that can be performed by other party members in rapid succession after exploiting a specific enemy’s weakness. Executing these Sessions build up “SP,” that can be spent to perform devastating attacks called Special Performances that can completely annihilate hordes of Mirages in a single blow. In a manner similar to Persona’s social link mechanic, characters’ relationships can be improved through leveling them up and completing their sidequests to unlock even more destruction “Duo Arts.” Additionally, various items and armor pieces can be equipped to further customize your party members and create your own play style. By collecting miscellaneous items from defeated enemies and convenient items chests, players can enter the Bloom Palace, where Fire Emblem fan-favorite, Tiki (here taking the form a virtual idol in the vein of Hatsune Mikue), can perform “Unity Rituals.” Whereas “Radiant Unity” simply grants new passive abilities to characters upon plot progression, the much more fleshed out “Carnage Unity” system allows players to forge various weapons with their own stats and moves. Since each character has a limited amount of equipable weapons, unity, carnage, and radiant skills, the player has to pick and choose what they want to use and level up. By doing this, the game fosters a ton of player choice, and apart from a few specific scenarios, combat remains extremely open-ended and versatile.
Outside of the battle system, exploration is broken up in to two distinct sections, wandering around Tokyo, and venturing into the other-worldly Idolspheres, that are inhabited by the Mirages. Walking around the crowded streets, markets and locales should be a fun distraction from the intense combat but is hampered by frequent load screens that make getting anywhere a chore and uninteresting dialogue with characters that serve no purpose. Making these moments more bearable is the implementation of the gamepad as a type of Smartphone that contains the social app “Topic,” allowing the player to interact with other characters in their free time. It is never made overbearing (like many other gimmicky gamepad implementations), and serves as a simple way to characterize the initially one-note cast through occasional text conversations and emojis. The app also acts as a quest log and map, showing relevant missions and floor plans of dungeons respectively. The map is especially useful in the monotonous Idolspheres that the player has to trek through. Although these locations are visually stunning and distinct from one another, their designs are fairly uninspired, impeding progress with ridiculously simple puzzles and needless backtracking that significantly hurts the flow of the game. Further damaging the game’s pace, Unity Rituals can only take place outside of dungeons, meaning that continuous trips in and out of these sprawling areas are required to make meaningful changes to characters’ weapons and unlock new Unity abilities. Semi-frequently placed warp zones and spells that instantly transport your party to the Bloom Palace do little to help this, as it still requires the player to endure several loading screens to get anywhere. Another minor gripe I have is the implementation of manual-saves, that allow the player to save their progress at any point in the game without penalty. Since falling in battle and receiving a game over requires you to restart from a save anyway, there’s no reason that the game shouldn’t automatically save after every battle, as it is both the most optimal way to proceed and completely unlimited.
While it’s not quite what audiences expected to get when we first heard of a Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei crossover, Atlus made the bold decision to deliver a completely unique experience that took inspiration from two historic franchises. Regardless of its occasional narrative shortcomings and blunders in level design, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is one of the most refreshing RPGS I’ve played all year. With an intriguing premise, outstanding aesthetics, and an amazing combat system, I couldn’t recommend a better game to fans clamoring for Persona 5.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits Marks A Beautiful New Beginning For Ember Lab
Kena: Bridge of Spirits will mark a beautiful new age for Ember Lab as the company will hopefully continue to pursue the interactive medium.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review
Developer: Ember Lab | Publisher: Ember Lab | Genre: Action-Adventure | Platform: PlayStation 4/5, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culmination of everything Ember Lab has created thus far. After years of presenting masterful shorts, it is only natural that the post-production company’s first video game project would flourish in the same charm its commercials and fan films have boasted since their inception. Despite being their first leap into a different medium of entertainment, Kena: Bridge of Spirits shows that Ember Lab is still on top of its game. The company has intertwined its best efforts into a seamless world of light and darkness that may occasionally appear dated but is absolutely worth visiting.
A Long-Awaited Awakening
Taking place in a world shaped by the presence of forces beyond the living, Kena: Bridge of Spirits‘ narrative absorbs its style and grace from what Ember Lab already succeeded with. While the story may not always explore its loveable protagonist to a deep extent, saying that the storytelling lacks depth would be a disservice to its emotional moments. To keep the premise as simple as possible without going into detail, the titular Kena is a spirit guide who must help lost souls find their way to what lies beyond the land of the living by repelling their darknesses. Her world’s story initially may playoff as generic, yet it grows to be both moving and surprising. Where the game’s focus really lies is in its gameplay and visuals.
As the player explores a lush open world, they will solve puzzles, fight humanoid spirits, upgrade weapons, and go on a collectathon for a handful of rewarding items. For an independent game that lacks the budget of a triple-A experience, Kena: Bridge of Spirits puts its smaller and larger competitions to shame. From its action to its artistic composition, the title knocks it out of the park with so many of its core design aspects. There may be a handful of problems with the gameplay, but its stylization and animated wonderland make it a nearly perfect adventure. Everything intertwines in a fashionable matter that feels effective and never loses focus, but there is certainly a warranted coat of polish behind its many highs.
There is a lot to love about Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ gameplay, but it is unquestionably where all of its shortcomings come from — many of these issues actually tend to go hand-in-hand for the most part as they tie into the player’s growth. While platforming and puzzle-solving are always a blast no matter what point in the narrative the player is at there are some noticeably annoying flaws that could have been easily fixed with connected solutions. Fighting enemies is always exciting and the controls are buttery smooth, but early odd difficulty curves and shallow progression often seep through the grander aspects.
During the first third of the game, the combat can oftentimes feel as if the player has an overwhelming upper hand on their enemies. Most of the hostile forces can be mowed down in less than two or three hits with players’ beginner attacks. These generic enemies may lack any thoughtful weaknesses, but thankfully the later foes require much more attention to overcome. However, getting smarter does not necessarily mean that the player will get to employ more skills. Kena: Bridge of Spirits can quite literally be beaten with the unaltered moves and weapons the player receives at the start of the adventure.
Disappointingly, Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a promising arsenal of abilities that provides no real progression — not because they aren’t hard to earn but due to their lasting worth. With only one melee weapon, a long-ranged bow, bombs, and the ability to dash, the game leaves itself with a small number of upgrades for the player to unlock that do not contribute much. The vast majority of these moves feel rewarding to use, yet they come off as features that could have easily been implemented into the player’s base moveset. They never provide any true variety to the combat or even necessarily skills that are required to finish the game.
It’s not just the weapons that suffer from this problem. They may be fun to collect and utilize, but the Rot creatures present a large growing number that represents little progression in terms of combat and somehow puzzle-solving. Apart from droplets that allow the Rot to take a larger serpent-like form as the player recruits more of them, the number of these spirits to collect can feel a tad insignificant in the long term. Customizing their costumes and seeing how they interact with the world will always put a smile on the player’s face, but nonetheless, it is a shame how the gameplay underutilizes their long-term presence.
Forging Large Hearts and Lovely Souls
During Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ hands-on previews, a lot of users compared the game to titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Pikmin, and God Of War. However, the clear inspiration for the game comes from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and its iconic fan film that Ember Lab helmed. Majora’s Mask — Terrible Fate was a spectacle that further skyrocketed the company to fame. Everything that short succeeded on in terms of both visuals and narrative — along with Ember Lab’s other projects for that matter — was carried over magnificently to Kena: Bridge of Spirits artistic direction.
While the gameplay has its faults, it’s no shocker that Ember Lab’s title would thrive most from its breathtaking visuals, cinematic direction, and audio design. Kena: Bridge of Spirits stands as not only one of the best-looking and sounding PlayStation 4 and 5 titles ever released, but one of the finest in the gaming industry overall. The gameplay may be refined, but the lush world Kena: Bridge of Spirits holds is one of the digital realm’s most beautiful landscapes to ever release on any platform.
On top of gorgeous environments, clean character models, and atmospheric effects, Kena: Bridge of Spirits truthfully thrives in visuals because of its animations. Whether you are watching cutscenes or walking around the world, there are always movements to sit back and admire. The game’s cast and environments never remain still–everything is highly expressive and constantly moving. Not a single spec of Kena’s palpable land feels as if it were forgotten or designed to simply act as something for the player to pass by. This sentiment especially shows itself with the Rot species.
Whereas the Rot may be criticized for their overarching gameplay purpose, it is impossible to deny the fact that they are beautifully animated. The spirits never feel as if they are glued on to Kena or their surrounding environments. They are constantly expressive and characterized by their movements and interactions with the world itself. The Rot are regularly interacting with their surroundings as they jump between locations and engage with structures in unique ways. Kena’s world already feels organic and lively thanks to its therapeutic atmosphere, but the Rot adds another layer of spirit to the game.
Of course, having a visual spectacle in an Ember Lab project means that the audio design was bound to be a knockout too. Kena’s score composed by Jason Gallaty and Dewa Putu Berata is remedial to the soul. It is bursting through the seams with heart and proper articulation as it helps further enhance the player’s immersion with environments and cinematics. On top of fantastical orchestrations and well-pieced sound design, the game boasts an excellent voice cast breathing into its many characters. Berata’s daughter, Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti, ended up voicing Kena herself, and you would think she is a veteran of the industry, but this is her first gig. Larassanti does a spectacular job, as does the rest of her fellow actors. All the performances together are just another factor that helps keep players invested.
The only disappointing aspects coming from the look of the game comes from the transitions between gameplay and cinematics. The cutscenes were clearly designed with a moviemaking mindset and sadly do not accommodate for performance mode on PlayStation 5. Rather than adjusting to the smoother sixty-frames look, the pre-rendered cinematics stick to half that rate. They still look unbelievable, but it can feel weird instantly jumping between the two — however, this problem is only for those using performance mode. The brief loading screens that equate to literal seconds do not ruin the fluidity of the presentation either, but hopefully in the future Ember Labs will be able to iron out this nitpick in whatever they choose to pursue next.
A Bridge Between Works
In the coming days, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is going to be compared to the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks for its visuals. Its gameplay will be explained by critics and the public by corresponding it with numerous popular franchises. Ultimately, though, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culminated work of Ember Lab’s extraordinary history in the entertainment industry. With ten years in the visual effects department, hours of experience filming at real sets, and a whole lot of inspiration from video games at the core of their spirit, the success of Ember Lab’s first independent title was inevitable. Kena: Bridge of Spirits will mark a beautiful new age for Ember Lab as the company will hopefully continue to pursue its latest shining endeavors in gaming. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a beautiful work of art, and Ember Lab has just gotten started.
A Descent into Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill 2 Soundtrack
The Music of Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is something else.
First released in 2002 by Konami (developed by Team Silent) for PlayStation 2 as a follow-up, not sequel, to the original Silent Hill (released in 1999 for PS1), it has since remained a crucial cornerstone in gaming history.
For those who embrace it, connect with it, it becomes an emotional endeavor, accomplishing a level of involvement and investment with the player that I have hardly, if ever, seen in the form of a video game.
You play as James, a troubled man drawn to the mysterious town of Silent Hill at the bequest of his, apparently, dead spouse. What follows is a downward spiral into the inner demons of the body, mind and soul, as Silent Hill comes alive as an amalgamated reflection of the torment James and the townsfolk that he meets have to live with.
In Silent Hill 2, the audio is as integral a part of the whole setup as anything else that contributes to its existence. Composer Akira Yamaoka is often credited as one of the three to four key people behind the creation and formation of the game, holding a status within the development team that is often not granted to a music composer.
The entirety of the soundtrack for Silent Hill 2 can be described as an intentional cacophony of bittersweet melodies, with hip hop beats laid over the darkest, most intimate, yearnings, and harrowing human-like-yet-synthetic sounds staggering out slowly from within the mostly silent environments of the game’s world.
The dark ambient aspects of the score are so simplistic but full of unnerving raw emotions.
While it would be expected for an atmospheric horror game of the time to perhaps include ambient sounds of howling winds and rustling trees, zombies or similar creatures going “uhhgghhh”, and other such things, Yamaoka’s compositions instead sputter radio noise, distorted electric strings and heavy drums that contain themselves within their own reverberations.
Yamaoka himself talks about this in the “making of” documentary, stating that he didn’t want to create the typical, scary sounds done in games like Resident Evil.
Keeping to its ambient nature, aspects of the score blend in with the environments of the game itself, merging the music played for you, the player, with the Otherworld screaming around James. But, in between these instances is often silence, scored with just the sounds of footsteps and faint environmental noises. Without these moments, the score would most likely lose all of its punch.
Considering the personal nature of James’s struggle within the context of the story, and his role in the creation of his own individual Otherworld, this ambiguity of the score plays directly into the narrative.
Also, it all sounds downright scary. That’s important.
Slower moments in the soundtrack, usually those that play in “safe” areas where enemies can’t reach you or in reflective cutscenes that divulge upon James’s thoughts, are pensive, which is in deep contrast with the balls-to-the-wall insanity that happens in the Otherworld. Here, we have somewhat relaxing, downtempo beats that resemble something more out of DJ Shadow’s catalog, or a song on a lo-fi chill playlist, which are popular these days.
Yamaoka counts Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Angelo Badalamenti (most popular for his work on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks) as two of his influences, and the chaotic rush of violent sounds that are then followed by melancholic and reflective plateaus seem to, perhaps, combine the best of those influences.
I’m not sure if Yamaoka heard or was in any way inspired by Maurice Jarre’s score for Jacob’s Ladder (the 1990 movie directed by Adrian Lyne served as perhaps the main inspiration behind the visuals and general ideas behind Silent Hill), as it too has the same qualities Yamaoka brings forth.
Unfortunately, Silent Hill 2’s full soundtrack has never been officially released, with the CD releases only containing thirty tracks, most of which are the more traditionally structured pieces.
While these tracks are crucial in bringing together the overall feeling of certain aspects of the game, on their own they simply cannot convey the complete mindset of the game’s experience.
A release that includes every single ambient or other soundtrack-related tracks is not common or even heard of; in the case of Silent Hill 2, however, these oft-disregarded pieces of “mood setting” music are perhaps more crucial to the identity of the game than they are for most other games.
Instead, to listen to the entire score of Silent Hill 2, one has to depend on dedicated fans such as “firebrandx”, who compiled the entire true score into an ultimate edition (tracks from which I featured within this article), and “TokyoBrando“, who has painstakingly compiled 108 or so tracks that amount to 3 hours and 40 minutes or so worth of material to YouTube.
Given that the series lost its identity after Silent Hill 2, meandering in mediocre scares and unimaginative canonical mishaps (not to mention things like the god-awful PS3 “remaster” of this very game), it’s fitting that it’s the fans who would work to preserve what once was.
Great Moments in Gaming: Silent Hill 2, Angela Orosco and the Stairs of Fire
This final meeting in Silent Hill 2 is about giving in to our worst impulses, and the tragic inability to save someone from themselves.
Looking Back at the Most Devastating Moment of Silent Hill 2
Great Moments in Gaming is a column wherein we look back at some of the great gaming moments that have made a significant impact on our view of this medium and how we have come to understand it. Today, we’re looking back at a tense, troubling stand-off between James and Angela in Silent Hill 2.
The Silent Hill series has long been known for its disturbing imagery and psychological knack for terrorizing us with our own worst imaginings. However, it is also known for the many tortured souls which are drawn to the titular town, and how it forces them to pay for their sins.
This is the impetus behind Silent Hill 2. James Sunderland murdered his sick wife. Angela Orosco murdered her abusive father. Both escaped justice, and it is for this reason that the town of Silent Hill calls to them. As James, you meet the troubled Angela several times over the course of your journey, and each time she seems to have descended further into her own personal abyss.
After James finds out the truth about the town, and why he was forced to return there, he meets the suicidal Angela one final time. Suddenly, apropos of nothing, James opens a door in the Lakeview Hotel and goes from a dusty, dilapidated haze to a sudden roar of flames and smoke.
There he sees Angela again. She seems to have resigned herself at last to carry out her suicide, and while James tries to talk her out of it, he soon grows resigned to let her go as well. Broken and disillusioned by the revelations he has been forced to accept about himself, and his own selfish nature, he lacks the strength to talk her down this time.
“It’s hot as hell in here,” he says at last, having nothing left to offer. To this Angela drops the most troubling line in all of Silent Hill 2. “You see it too? For me, it’s always like this.” The revelation that this is how Silent Hill has looked to Angela all this time, as opposed to the empty, foggy town you’ve been seeing, is a jaw dropper in its own right, but the connotations beneath the line are what really dig their fingernails into your psyche.
As a survivor of years of sexual abuse from her father, Angela has suffered for so long that she’s barely able to hold on to her sanity. With the murder of her father still weighing on her, the blame of her mother still tormenting her and the town of Silent Hill forcing her to face her trauma and her sins head on, Angela’s version of hell is truly a horrific place. The above line refers to how she, as a survivor of sexual abuse and trauma, is forced to live in her devastating reality all the time. Even as those around her walk in and out of her private hell, she is unable to leave it.
This is the moment in Silent Hill 2 when she is finally giving up, giving in and letting go of this horrible life. As she walks off into the flames, James is forced to watch, knowing he lacks the courage and compassion to save her. James isn’t even sure he can save himself anymore. And so he watches, as Angela climbs the stairs to her demise, disappearing forever into the flames that have threatened to consume her for so long.
It’s a devastating scene, and maybe the most emotionally evocative moment of the whole franchise. Set to the heart-wrenching “Theme of Laura“, James and Angela’s final meeting is about giving in to our worst impulses, and the tragic inability to save someone from themselves.
Silent Hill has always been about this sort of thing. Tormented fathers, grieving mothers, impetuous daughters, and sinful sons. However, no creature in the series storied past has been as damned or as tortured as Angela Orosco of Silent Hill 2, and as James watches her walk into those flames, we are left with a feeling so raw and empty that the smoke begins to fill our hearts as well.
All these years later, I can still see those flames and smell that smoke. I’ve never forgotten Silent Hill 2’s Angela, and like Aerith Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII and Sarah Miller in The Last of Us, she lives on even in her death, filling players with horrible regret and transcendent sorrow for the girl we just couldn’t save, no matter how hard we tried.
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