Persona 3: The Slowest Game of (Last) Year

Once again, The Brainy Gamer has approached a subject far more elegantly than I. In his most recent post, Michael talks a little about Persona 4. In particular, although he really enjoys it (just like last year's version), he really criticizes the game's lack of pacing. I'm still slowly trudging through Persona 3, largely based off Michael's recommendation last year. Well into my 42nd hour with the game, and maybe only halfway through, I had been trying to figure out for days what exactly bothered me about the game.

I love the atmosphere of it. The characters, for the most part, are believable and interesting. You have a great deal of freedom in how you choose to spend your days within the game world. The plot is interesting. I really want to see why this giant tower exists that I occasionally venture into to fight monsters, and why some people want me to stop. Although, it is a bit slow-moving. Wait a minute! That's it. The plot is extremely slow, and the pacing is lethargic. Of course, I was only reminded of this thanks to Michael's well-written post on P4. But I'll throw in my own two cents anyway.

As I've already said, in general, I really like Persona 3. Yes, it has a lot of familiar RPG trappings, but I really enjoy the many twists and additions Atlus made to the formula. The problem is that in a game that is somewhat accurately described on the back of the case as taking 70+ hours to complete, how do you keep the player interested enough to finish the game? I suppose I'm enough of a completionist, and invested in the game enough temporally to force myself through to the end. The slow pace of such a long game is, in my opinion, a detriment to what is turning out to be an interesting plot.

A two hour movie can ramp up or ease down the tension within just a couple of minutes. Even books, which take several hours to read, are more adept at alternately maintaining suspense and providing relief to the reader. The problem is that in an RPG of the length of Persona, there is a lot of downtime. Like Michael, "I accept the idea that P4's (P3's) narrative is punctuated by many hours of dungeon battles that deliver virtually no story at all." While the dungeon crawling occasionally feels a little tedious, the always-difficult battles do keep me engaged.

But when the game returns to more "official" storytelling, as Michael says, the characters often reiterate multiple times things which I already know. They have trouble getting straight to the point. And since the major plot scenes are fully voiced, and I'm often in a hurry, I constantly feel disconnected from the game by constantly pounding on the X button to speed through the dialogue. Thus it sounds like every character has a stutter. I never let them finish a sentence, because I can read much faster than they can talk. Usually, I just want to get on with it.

One technical aspect of the game also frustrates me, as I try to force the game to pick up the pace. As a PS2 game, Persona 3 must do a lot of loading: when you first start the game, every time you open the menu, when you enter a new area, when you open a door. It's never ending, and in a 70+ hour game, the two seconds it takes to open the menu really starts to add up. So while the in-game clock may say I've played for 42 hours, 2-3 hours of that could easily be time spent opening the menu.

Compare this to the other RPG I've been playing, Dragon Quest IV on the DS. As a cartridge-based system, like the SNES which it closely emulates, DS games rarely, if ever, feature excessive amounts of loading. I can access menus and go to new areas in DQIV pretty much instantly. It's a much more seamless process, whereas the constant pauses in Persona 3 constantly take me out of the game and add to my frustration at not being able to pick up the pace a little bit.

The pacing and loading problems of Persona 3 are by no means a deal-breaker. Anyone who enjoys RPGs should by all means give the game a shot. But they really do detract from the game's ability to weave together a solid narrative. And when I have a huge stack of games waiting to be played through, it's really frustrating to be stuck in this turgid world. As much as I like Persona 3, the length and pacing issues really make me question whether I'll be able to muster up the strength to tackle the 4th iteration. Other games will probably prove to be more important.

At any rate, Michael, thanks for another excellent post, and for finally helping me to see the problems I was having accepting Persona 3.


Do Some Games Benefit From Older Technology?

Recently, on the excellent Verbal Spew, Jeremy Parish of 1UP posted an interesting article delving into the announcement that Dragon Quest X would be released on the Wii. A lot of people were surprised that DQIX was revealed a couple years ago to be destined solely for the DS. But really, in Japan as elsewhere, everyone and their grandmother has a DS. It makes perfect sense for a high-profile game to try to go where the money is. Similarly, the Wii has seen enormous levels of sales and popularity since its launch two years ago, so it should come as no surprise that Square-Enix wants to market DQX to as large of an install base as possible.

But what this really points to, I think, is that not all games derive direct benefits from a huge increase in graphical and technological power, a la the PS3 and 360. Parish writes that "it makes sense that Dragon Quest's sequels are headed to DS and Wii. They don't need PS3-level power to be heartwarming, and in fact too much tech would probably just get in the way. The hardcore gamers have their PS3s and Xbox 360s, but everyone has a DS or a Wii." I agree, not just about Draqon Quest, but about RPGs in general. In particular, turn-based RPGs such as Dragon Quest, some iterations of Final Fantasy, and strategy games such as Advance Wars or Jeanne d'Arc don't necessarily need advanced technology to achieve their goals.

As Parish says, if the goal of a game like DQV is to tell a slight spin of a familiar story, with a well-known turn-based battle system, it hardly needs to be remade for the PS3, right? If nothing else, if an RPG such as this were made for the PS3, the developers would devote extra time to producing top-notch graphics, figuring out the hardware, and maximizing the game's performance for the technological elite. This, in turn, takes them away from expanding and perfecting the story and battle system, which are the main draws of most RPGs anyway. More advanced technology is just a distraction from the most important parts of many RPGs. This is somewhat evidenced by the large number of RPGs on systems with lower specs, particularly the DS, but also the PSP and the continued support of the PS2 (see Persona 4).

At the same time, Parish does a great job of acknowledging that there is also a place (currently a very large place) for big budget, technologically advanced games. And there are definite advantages to having the power of a PS3 or 360 available. One of the biggest, I think, is just being able to clearly see what's going on in the game. Sharp graphics on a decent-sized HD-TV truly are a beauty to behold. Especially in fast-paced games like shooters, the ability to easily delineate everything in your field of vision is a huge asset. The simple ability to see clearly and evaluate your surroundings was often disappointingly difficult in previous generations, particularly during the early days of the PS1 and N64's attempts at 3D. I remember numerous times wondering what I was looking at in games like GoldenEye or Perfect Dark, trying to make out my enemy amongst a bunch of debris. An increase in graphical power is a major benefit for shooters and other action games that rely on the player's ability to constantly know what's happening around them.

But take any RPG, and this type of graphical fidelity is nowhere near required. Would or Persona 3 or 4 have been better on a current-gen system? Perhaps, but I don't think so. Everything they set out to accomplish, creating a believable high school-based world, developing your interactions with NPCs, and crafting an exciting turn-based battle system could all easily be accomplished on the PS2. You're never in doubt as to what you're doing. While a PS3 version would certainly have crisper graphics with more polygons, in this case, I don't think that's necessarily a benefit, and would potentially distract the developers from honing other aspects of the game.

What other games or types of games can benefit from a hardware downgrade? I think an argument could be made that high-profile sequels (e.g. MGS4 or GTAIV) don't always benefit from the newest technology. Are there any other genres or games that benefit from older, easier to use technology? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments.


Portal: Simultaneously Enthralling and Disappointing

Sometimes, expectations are everything. A big reason for buying the PS3 version of The Orange Box was Portal. But since being released over a year ago, the game has been talked to death, and I thought I knew everything about it going in. I was both right and wrong.

The first handful of Portal test chambers were magical and enchanting. They were short and simple enough for me to be able to absorb the atmosphere, soak everything in. I knew that there was no shooting involved, just the Portal gun, but I was somewhat surprised that you don't have full access to it until somewhere near the middle of the game. Despite having only one "weapon," this works really well to acclimate you to the handful of features of that tool. At first, the concepts of Portal seemed impossibly hard for brain to process. But as you are introduced to new techniques one by one, you naturally start to see where you can apply them in later levels. The portal gun really does affect the way you see the world and approach the puzzles in the levels.

Despite the slow and meticulous introduction of features, problems, and hazards in this game, I felt somewhat of a disconnect when I suddenly encountered lethal test chambers. Although I suppose that's part of the point. GLaDOS has gone off the rails and can no longer be trusted. No longer am I just going through the tests. I'm trying to escape. But I was completely enveloped in the non-lethal, "safe" encounters of the early levels. Personally, I would have welcomed the entire game resembling the first half, with no sentry turrets or pools of acid.

Speaking of GLaDOS, the voice of the computer controlling your experiences of the research facility, I think she's every bit as smarmy, humorous, and captivating as I had been led to expect. The problem was that while I caught all of her instructions, advice, and commentary in the first handful of levels, once the action heated up, I wasn't always able to pay attention to her. One play through of this game for a first-person perspective novice like myself is simply not enough time for me to absorb everything. Much of her dry and misleading commentary in the second half flew right by me, as I focused on more pertinent issues like surviving or crossing a huge pool of acid. GLaDOS adds a lot to the game, but I worry that I only appreciated her as much as I did because of the extensive amount of Portal coverage I had already read since its release.

On a final note, I was fully expecting Portal to be a three hour adventure. And I was fine with that. In fact, I was looking forward to a shorter game. But after getting stuck on a couple of the later puzzles, and wandering around lost in the final search for GLaDOS, my time with the game probably stretched out closer to the seven hour mark. Again, still not that long for a game, but much longer than I expected. And to some degree that ruined my experience of the game. I kept thinking it was almost over when I still had a while to go.

The larger issue here is that of learning too much about a game before it comes out. There's a good chance I'll have this problem repeatedly over the coming weeks as I check out numerous PS3 titles I finally have the opportunity to try. After reading dozens of articles about a particular game, it's bound to not fully meet my expectations. In a perfect world, I would go into a game knowing just enough to get an idea of whether it appeals to me or not. I don't want to know everything about a game before I play it. But as someone who constantly reads about games and the games industry, it's hard to avoid encountering too much about those games I most want to play.

I'll have to try to temper my expectations a bit as I begin future games. Portal was a lot of fun, and if I ever have the time, I'd like to play through it again. GLaDOS's commentary was funny and memorable, and the difficulty ramped up nicely. But somehow, it managed to be simultaneously what I expected and what I didn't expect. At the very least, I can be thankful that I'm "still alive."


Sony's Own Awards Show Highlights Their Struggles in the Marketplace

When you use an RSS reader to keep track of updates on several blogs, you tend to see the same news story posted multiple times. Most recently, I was mildly interested to see all the major gaming sites post about Sony's 2008 PlayStation Awards. Each year in Japan, Sony hands out awards to developers based on how many copies of their game shipped. They generally range from Gold (500,000 to 1 million) to Double Platinum (2 to 3 million).

However, after a little googling for the results of previous years, I found that the number of winners and the platforms they're released on really pinpoint Sony's current place in the market. My full report is over at The Game Reviews. What I found was that over the last four years, the total number of winners has been cut in half, from 12 or 13 to 6. Furthermore, there are much fewer winners of a Platinum award or higher in the last two years. Most of the current winners only receive a Gold award, having shipped less than a million copies.

What this really underscores is how much of a success the PS2 was for Sony, and how difficult they're finding it to replicate that success with the PS3 and/or PSP. As we all know, the PS2 was a huge hit, and still sells thousands of consoles a month to this day. However, Sony's smaller number of awards show that the PS3 and PSP, as we already know, just don't have the install base of the PS2. While there are still a couple of PS2 games in the 2008 awards, there was only a single PS3 game.

I'll be interested to see next year's results. There should be an even smaller number of PS2 titles to be eligible for an award. How many PS3 and PSP titles will ship over half a million copies. I certainly can't imagine it being too much more than this year. I would love to see Sony's PS3 install base grow and expand. And a larger number of well-produced games that deserve our purchase can only be a good thing for the industry. Personally, an award won't really affect my decision on whether to purchase a game. But this multi-year glimpse into Sony sales numbers doesn't exactly paint a flattering picture for this generation.

What do you think? Are these awards significant? They are Japan-only, after all.


Regarding My PSN ID and Trophies

In my Playstation 3 fervor of the last couple of weeks, I totally forgot that I can now play a plethora of games online, and easily add friends and share my PSN ID. My PSN ID is, simply, koreyjp. I have no idea why the jp is on there. Maybe I originally created it while in Japan? As you can see to the right, I added a cool little image to my blog, my PS3 Trophy Card, courtesy of Playfire. I know that trophies haven't been quite as big of a hit as Microsoft's achievements, partly because they're not implemented as cohesively or exhaustively and partly because of their addition as part of a late copycat syndrome. But all that might change in 2009, when all PS3 games are required to include trophy support.

So far, the only game I have that supports trophies is Pixeljunk Eden. I think trophies can be a good way to extend the life of the game, and a way of comparing your accomplishments with your friends. They're surprisingly addictive. I really want to get as many of the Eden trophies as I can. But it seems a bit ridiculous when Pixeljunk Eden asks you to complete a level without wasting any pollen. Really? I might just skip that one.

I don't have many games at the moment, but if any regular readers of this humble little blog want to add me as a friend, it's koreyjp.


Half-Life 2: A Great Way to Introduce New Weapons

First-person shooters terrify me. On The Orange Box, I played Portal first to sort of ease myself into that perspective, even though there's no shooting. That only lasted a few hours (although quite a few more than I expected) so I'm now up to my neck in Half-Life 2. I know. It's possible I'm the only gamer left on the planet who hasn't played it.

I'm about one-third of the way in, and Valve created a breathtakingly paced game. It rarely slows down for you, and even when it does, you're just waiting for the next adrenaline-fueled task to pop out of the wall and challenge you. But what Half-Life 2 does exceptionally well is familiarize you with the weapons at your disposal within the game. If you've been running along with only a pistol and start encountering groups of enemies, you acquire their assault rifle. When lightning-fast zombies appear, you get a shotgun, which is perfect for blasting their ranks since they get close to you so quickly.

But the perfect example of acquainting you with new mechanics in the heat of battle is the gravity gun. It's acquired in the chapter titled "We don't go to Ravenholm." Up until this point in the game, you've largely been fighting through waves of Combine police and the occasional robotic seeker. But now, I know that nobody goes to Ravenholm because it's completely overrun by zombies. They're everywhere! The beauty of giving you the gravity gun at this point in the game is simple: it doesn't use ammo.

Up until this point, you can easily blast through soldiers with your assault rifle and gather more ammo than you'll ever dead from their bullet-riddled bodies. But in Ravenholm, there are no Combine soldiers. Only zombies. And as everyone knows, zombies don't use guns. They just unceasingly march towards you, arms outstretched. If you try to plow through Ravenholm with your standard arsenal, as I did, you'll soon find yourself very low on ammo. Logically, since the zombies don't use guns, they don't drop ammo when they die. Sure, there are a few hidden weapon caches, but they're not nearly enough to sustain you through this lengthy chapter.

Your only savior is the mighty gravity gun. And you'd better master it quickly, because the zombies aren't the most patient of teachers. You can then casually pull a barrel towards you, and then fling it at a zombie at neck-snapping speed. Even better, pick up a saw blade and watch it slice through as many zombies as you can line up. With no ammo in sight, the gravity gun is the only way to make it. Save your ammo for the numerous ambushes.

Unfortunately, as I already mentioned, I didn't know ammo would be so scarce in Ravenholm until I was well past the point of no return. But I've now hoarded enough ammo to safely see me through the rest of the level. And since I was forced to use the gravity gun so much, I feel much more confident and comfortable with it. Bravo, Valve. Excellent introduction of a unique, powerful weapon. Of course, I'm not out of the woods yet. In fact, I'm in the mines.