Does a good game make a good anime? Persona 4: The Animation – eps 1 to 9

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Persona 4 Anime - Our HeroesI’m nine episodes into Persona 4: The Animation, the anime adaptation of the excellent PS2/Vita RPG; as I would like to eventually finish the game (I am “only” 30 hours in), I have paused at this point in the anime to avoid spoiling myself. The anime is a lot of fun, worth the money I spent on it… and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it is a guilty pleasure.


The anime does a number of things right. For one, it has very strong source material, with a great premise: Persona 4 follows several teenage friends who, in the course of investigating murders in their sleepy country town, end up fighting their own literal and metaphorical demons. P4’s characters are goofy (perhaps a bit more so in the anime), amusing (I’ve laughed so hard, the other passengers on my commute probably think I’m bonkers), and yet human and relatable. The anime’s fight scenes are spectacular – the titular Personas have never looked better – and its production values are excellent; the anime’s art is vibrant and attractive, and I routinely grin when it uses music from the game’s soundtrack. So what’s the problem?

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Suikoden Tactics: a reunion with an old friend

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Suikoden Tactics

2013 05 25 SuikodenTactics_screen02




When I made my last move, I thought I’d seized an opening. The pirate had his back turned; and when I saw I could take him down with one attack from Kyril, the game’s young hero, I couldn’t resist. But now the shoe is on the other foot. In my haste to push Kyril forward, I’ve left him standing alone on the deck of the pirate ship. And before any backup can reach him, several pirates have their turns coming up…


The first pirate attacks. Kyril’s health plummets. Next pirate’s turn. I grit my teeth – only to watch, impressed, as the boy’s father leaps in to protect him from the blow. Kyril took only half damage from that hit, and the pirates’ opportunity has passed. It’s Andarc the mage’s turn next, and he opens up with a barrage from his Lightning rune, killing one pirate and wounding another. Then it’s the turn of more and more of my characters, and as they run up to join Kyril, the danger is past.


I’m several hours into Suikoden Tactics, a 2005 spinoff from one of my favourite RPG series, Suikoden. As its name suggests, it’s a grid- and turn-based tactical RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and Disgaea (in other words, in my classification scheme, it’s a Type III game).  From a mechanical standpoint, it is reasonably straightforward: different characters have different strengths and weaknesses, and while characters’ classes appear to be effectively preset – for instance, Kyril will always be a melee fighter – there is some scope to customise them by choosing which skills to prioritise. The actual combat is standard TRPG fare, though with a couple of quirks: characters have elemental affinities with particular tiles on the map, and tile elements can be changed by items and spells. That said, so far this seems to be good standard TRPG fare. Combat feels intuitively fluid in the way that the best tactical RPGs do: characters go down in just the right number of hits (too many would lead to tedium; too few would be frustrating), move far enough for squishy characters to be vulnerable, but not too vulnerable; and so on. Aesthetics are a mixed bag; the in-game sprites have not aged well, but character portraits are crisp and attractive. Storywise, no spoilers, but I’m definitely intrigued.

Continue reading “Suikoden Tactics: a reunion with an old friend”

Guest post: Writing and Worldbuilding in Final Fantasy XII: Story Isn’t Enough, by Matt Bowyer

A key part of a story’s appeal — whether it be a book, a game, or a movie — is its ability to transport me to a world of wonder, and almost as fascinating is peering behind the curtain to see how the creator pulled it off. In the following guest post, Matt Bowyer breaks out the magnifying glass for a look at Final Fantasy XII (2006, Square Enix). Enjoy!




“Where is this taking place, again?”

“I can picture your characters and their actions very well, but I have no idea what this area is like.”

“Make these backgrounds interactive versus static.”

“This is quite the featureless white room your characters are in.”


I feel like I do a pretty good job in building the world of my attempted novels. A lot of time and effort goes into figuring out why this country grew up around the church while this neighboring country is almost agnostic, and what conflicts would have arisen between these two lands as time passed. I regularly add to a document, filling in bits of legend and mythology alongside the evolution of trade routes and what racial slurs are used among less refined city-dwellers. And then I let my characters run all over it and forget to use that worldbuilding for anything more than a backdrop. I can get away with this if I want; a story is only as good as its characters as far as I’m concerned, and that’s where most of my focus in writing goes. It’s not something that’s acceptable in video games, though, and that’s why I have this soapbox here.


Final Fantasy XII is one of the best games ever made, and absolutely the best of the Final Fantasy series. One of its strongest qualities is its worldbuilding; the bustling desert capital Rabanastre is full of people at all times, a constant buzz of activity on every screen. It’s the most alive city I’ve seen in an RPG. The entire game is full of these incredible locales; the thick heat of the Golmore Jungle, the floating majesty that is the Skycity of Bhujerba, the quiet power at the sacred site of Mt. Bur-Omisace.


Final Fantasy XII’s bestiary adds to this deep world — kill one enemy and you are treated to a beautiful painting plus a page or so of detail about it, the migratory patterns of rotund cockatrices or the hunting habits of sand-dwelling crocodiles. But if you kill another 5-10 of that creature, you get a bit of Sage Knowledge about the world of Ivalice. It may be a legend about a specific item that drops from that creature, it may be a passage from a holy book, it may be why magick power has flourished while electricity did not, it may be a bit of sell copy for a nearby shop. It’s fantastic stuff, and I found myself drastically lowering the local lizard population so I could learn more about their teeth. But that’s not enough. A deep bestiary and a great deal of supplemental in-game writing is wonderful, but anyone can do that with enough time and a decent writer supporting their worldbuilding efforts. It’s much harder, but I feel much more important, to build that world identity in-game, in a way that engages your players more deeply than words on a screen.


Final Fantasy XII excels at this. The Skycity of Bhujerba is a set of floating islands built around a magicite mining colony founded by moogles, the earliest airship builders and pilots. Bhujerba is valuable because of the skystone magicite produced in its mines — those stones are what allow the islands to float high above the ground, and they give that same power to the many airships that sail the skies of Ivalice. The Arcadian Empire’s recent expansionism has increased the pressure on Bhujerba, and now the Skycity is officially allied to Archades – but though the city grants the Empire access to its magicite mines, anti-Imperial tension boils within.


The most important visual aspect of Bhujerba is the fact that it is a series of floating islands. Most fantasy games don’t have much need to explain this — a wizard did it, are we ordering out for lunch? — but Final Fantasy XII builds the reason for this into the plot itself, and your first trip to the city deals with its most important aspect. Your first visit to Bhujerba takes you inside the mines, where you meet a character who talks of the Empire’s interest in the skystone. The end of the excursion in the mines gives the party a particular kind of magicite which breaks the rules, placing more importance and emphasis on the role magicite plays in the game, and further underlines Bhujerba’s importance to the Empire. The player does not just read this in a document three menus deep, he learns it while exploring the mine behind the political drama. The player learns of the power of magicite when the player acquires some, and the player learns of the boundaries of the world so when those boundaries are pushed later on, that change actually means something.


One of the first things you are told upon entering Bhujerba and talking to everyone that you can — the only acceptable action in a new town in an RPG — is that no one has died falling off of the city into the water below. A bit of flavor lets you know why people live here, why they apparently have no qualms about sitting on the side of a wall inches from freefall, and also offers a bit of knowledge that will help the player solve a side quest later in the game. You will also hear rumors about mutated creatures, ghosts haunting the mines, and other bits of background flavor that lead into eventual side quests later on — again, informing the player through action, not just reading. It’s not just worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, it directly involves the player. It makes the world more than just a backdrop, it makes it a place.


There are more examples of this throughout the game. The three-tiered caste structure in Archades, a city built from the ground up to the sky: the party has to navigate the politics of the city’s elite to make it to that lofty status themselves. Giza Plains: the game tells you early on about the torrential rains that wash through every season, then buries you under those rains hours later when you return, opening up new areas and closing off old ones. The Mosphoran Highwaste, full of ancient shrines to forgotten gods: later those shrines open up pathways to new, previously unreachable areas.


Nearly every area in Final Fantasy XII was built with the player in mind. The developers considered how their design of Ivalice would impact the player. Even the weather changes make a difference; blistering heat in the desert brings out fire elementals who drift lazily in the sunlight, but are quick to react to magic cast in their vicinity. The Nabreus Deadlands feature a fog that obscures enemies until they are already upon you; that fog is a result of the Mist pouring out of ravaged Nabudis, and inside Nabudis are unspeakable horrors twisted by the incredible energy unleashed upon that city before the game began. That event is also referenced by an important NPC later on in the game, another way the game involves the player in what happened.


Compare this to the more recent Final Fantasy XIII, which has incredibly beautiful locations with stunning music supporting them, and which have no more impact on your gameplay than wallpaper. Lake Bresha is a gorgeous frozen lake that Lightning and the other protagonists land in after a boss encounter, but you do nothing but run from Point A to Point B — nothing here makes any impact on your gameplay experience. There is no difference in navigating the Fifth Ark versus navigating the Gapra Whitewood — your location does nothing but change the color of the enemies you fight. For all the importance these areas have in your gameplay experience, you might as well be playing in a featureless white room.


That might work in a book, where the strength of the characters and the story can overcome ignoring the world. That will not work in a game, because there is no story in games worth telling that ignores the player.

Matt Bowyer is an aspiring author living in Kansas City who spends too much time playing video games and playing armchair designer. He can be found at in between chapters and loading screens.

A history of heroes: storytelling in Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.


(Note: this article contains moderate spoilers for the game.)


Elaborate backstories are part and parcel of speculative fiction. Fantasy’s defining work, Lord of the Rings, is above all a work of worldbuilding, while science fiction authors have long created detailed “future histories” to tie their works together. Given the extent to which RPGs grew out of this literary genre, it’s no surprise that RPG designers followed suit – a trend at its most visible in the lore codices of recent titles such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. But in my opinion, few games have done it as well as a little-known 2006 Playstation 2 JRPG, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (developed by tri-Ace and published by Square Enix).


Very, very, very loosely inspired by Norse mythology, VP2 followed the adventures of Alicia, an exiled princess sharing a body with the valkyrie Silmeria*. The game offered a lengthy plot featuring wrathful gods, magic MacGuffins, swordsmen and sorcerers – but if the plot were all VP2 had, I would not be writing this post. It simply wasn’t that great for the first two-thirds of the game, though it did pick up sharply towards the end. Rather more satisfying was VP2’s character growth: Alicia went from a frightened girl dependent on Silmeria (this wallpaper says it all) to a mature, confident heroine, complete with new voice clips in battle. But while this was rewarding, it was still anything but groundbreaking – after all, character growth is the bread and butter of fiction.


Where VP2 uniquely shone was the way it brought its world, past and present, to life. Part of this was a combination of art design and music. The soundtrack was serene as you traversed the sunlit idyll of the Kythena Plains; ponderous in a dark, haunted forest and lilting in a magical one; chirpy in the metropolis of Villnore and ethereal as you crossed Bifrost, the breathtakingly spectacular bridge to the heavens. Even ruins, the stock setting of fantasy RPGs, were distinct: when Alicia journeyed through a half-submerged temple, the pensive music echoed the lost splendour around her – very different from the conventionally heroic theme that accompanied a trip through an ancient volcano.


And the wonders of VP2’s world were more than skin deep. While your party included plenty of storyline characters, you could also recruit up to 20 einherjar – the spirits of long-dead warriors, chosen by Silmeria to fight for the gods – randomly chosen from a pool of 40. The storyline characters (who appeared in the game’s plentiful cut-scenes) were far more fleshed-out than any one einherjar (who had only a few lines of dialogue apiece**). But as a group, I think the einherjar received by far the better deal. That was because each character, storyline or einherjar, had backstory in the form of a character profile accessed from the party screen – and the einherjar backstories, spread over a thousand years of in-game history, were extensively woven together. They interwove with the towns you visited in-game (your party might include a given location’s mythical founders), but more importantly, they interwove with each other. If you read the profiles of two or three einherjar, you might find that they’d journeyed together in their youth; split up to take opposite sides in a war; and met their separate ends after that. A kingdom home to four or five einherjar in one generation might disappear a hundred years later, brought down by an einherjar from a rival land; that conqueror in turn might die ignominiously to a poisoned arrow.


This would have been impressive enough on its own. But there was also a second, deeper layer: the profiles weren’t always true. For instance, this is what the game had to say about Woltar the sorcerer, who joined in one of the earliest dungeons:


A ruthless alchemist who kidnapped the Queen of Crell Monferaigne in 746 C.C. Hiding out in the hinterland of Salerno, Woltar was rumoured to have spent his days and nights engrossed in horrifying experiments. However, in 752 C.C. he was found and punished by officers from Crell Monferaigne. A month after the queen was rescued from her prison, she took her own life by throwing herself  from atop the castle wall.


The mental images are horrific – but false. Here’s what really happened: Woltar and the queen eloped. They lived happily and even had a daughter together, before the king’s men found Woltar, killed him, and brought the queen back, only for her to kill herself out of grief for her lover. Their daughter’s ending was no happier, as you found out if you recruited her: she was murdered years later on the orders of her stepbrother, the prince.


The tragic tale of Woltar and family was just the tip of the iceberg. The einherjar backstories were packed with sorrow: the woman who, believing false accusations, arranged for her sister’s death – and who killed herself upon discovering the truth; friends who met on the battlefield after supporting rival kings; the loyal sorcerer whose suspicious liege abandoned him to torture and death. And while the game played fast and loose with its Norse inspiration, this was one area where it felt absolutely true to my knowledge of myths from round the world – look at how few of the ancient Greek heroes made it to a happy ending.


But the einherjar backstories weren’t just about sorrow, containing as they did other emotions that we should feel in the presence of epics. These were warriors brave enough to be chosen as the champions of the gods, and thus, heroism – and triumph even in death – were prominent: the friends whose sacrifice saved their home from conquest; the trio who sealed off the gateway to the netherworld, something which could probably have made a story in its own right. There was even poetic justice: the sorcerer responsible for the deaths of four other einherjar never got to enjoy his triumph, courtesy of an arrow through the heart. His assassin? None other than another einherjar.


Unfortunately, despite all the above, rock-solid gameplay*** and praise from the critics, VP2 never achieved even the cult-classic status of its predecessor. Sales (according to VGchartz’ estimates) were measly, and even within the JRPG genre, it seems to have ended up little more than an obscure footnote. But it left its impression on me. Long after details of gameplay and plot faded from my mind, I remember the game’s locations, beautiful, diverse, and filled with character. I remember the game’s spiderweb of einherjar relationships, complex and deep enough to do any novelist proud. I remember how enthralled I was to see the pitiless history of VP2’s world played out through the lives and deaths of the einherjar; and I remember the emotions their stories provoked. True, this is not a method that could be used by many games, given how the valkyrie/einherjar conceit tied in with the game’s lore – but VP2 made the most of it. To this day, I’m glad to have experienced VP2’s storytelling, and it remains one of my favourite games.



* An invention of the game, not an actual mythological figure.


** Unlike the first game, where every character you recruited was an einherjar, each of whom received an introductory cut-scene of his/her own.


*** To be fair, sometimes it was a bit too rock-solid – the game was rather hard.




Eurogamer review

Order Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria from Amazon (US)


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Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous

Black Lagoon is an anime series following the adventures of a crew of modern-day gangsters/guns for hire/pirates, and one very out-of-place Japanese salaryman, as they  battle mob bosses, mercenaries and maniacs. Meanwhile, God Hand is a PS2 brawler about a guy who protects the supernatural power of  the titular limb from hordes of mohawked punks, whip-wielding women, and demons who range from corpulent to alluring to plain monstrous. Other than violence, what on earth could these have in common?


The answer is, they are both powered by the same core concept, what I call Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous: if you’re going to tell a story that is ludicrous, over-the-top or plain silly, not only must you be aware of that, you’d better make very sure that the audience knows you’re aware of that.


Note that the Rule of the Ridiculous is not the same as “so bad it’s good”, although it is related to that long and honourable dramatic tradition, hamming it up. “So bad it’s good” is unintentional on the creators’ part, whereas self-awareness is the whole point of the Rule of the Ridiculous. Meanwhile, hamming it up is what happens when the actors, not the writers/directors/creators, are the ones who embrace the ridiculousness.


How does the rule apply to Black Lagoon and God Hand? Both take genres that, by definition, stretch believability – action films for Black Lagoon; video games in general, beat ‘em ups more specifically for God Hand – and drag them through the realm of self-parody. Action movies presented us with zombie pirates, whip-wielding Nazi-fighting archaeologists, and martini-quaffing, laser-defying, hit men; games often rely on endowing us with similar Macho McToughguy powers. Black Lagoon’s characters are even more overpowered, but it doesn’t stop there. Its heroes yell, “We’re being chased by an unstoppable killer robot from the future!” and in one episode, go up against an army of supervillains toting not just pistols, not just rifles,  not just swords, but every way to die known to man: flamethrower, chainsaw, minigun, even a kukri-on-a-rope. God Hand, meanwhile, will never have you looking at fight scenes the same way again after the first time you kick a demon in the groin, knock him flat, stomp on his head, and then launch his buddies into the sky, accompanied by an in-game laugh track.


In contrast, I can think of a couple of franchises that would have been improved had they run with the Rule of the Ridiculous:


  • Exhibit #1 is Warhammer 40,000, where IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE, THERE IS ONLY WAR. And that war includes ten-foot tall superhuman space marines, barely-literate space orcs orks, space elves, space dark elves, 50-metre (150-foot) tall mecha piloted by machine-worshippers, demon-summoning cultists, rifts that can swallow up whole space fleets, and somehow managing to survive in all this, human grunts and tankmen led by sword-waving commissars.


  • Exhibit #2 is the Mobile Suit Gundam anime franchise, which – in the entries I’ve seen – tends to follow a formula. Whiny teenaged heroes miraculously stumble into command of superweapons! Teenaged heroes repeatedly fight off hordes of enemies! Teenaged heroes barely take a scratch even when fighting veteran soldiers!


Are these universes inherently more unbelievable than those of Black Lagoon or God Hand? No. The problem is, they’re presented in so po-faced a fashion that my mind balks at accepting them. And from there, it’s only a short step to dwelling on their flaws. But in God Hand, and in Black Lagoon once it warms up to the Rule, suspension of disbelief never has the chance to become an issue – I’m too busy laughing, exclaiming, “Holy–!” or otherwise being dragged along for the ride.


And that’s the beauty of the Rule of the Ridiculous. It takes unpromising or hackneyed raw material, and transforms it into sheer glee, almost like a Philosopher’s Stone for storytellers. It makes Black Lagoon and God Hand memorable rather than generic. It lets creators achieve the cult classic status associated with “so bad it’s good” while skipping the “bad” part. And it can be as simple as exaggerating genre conventions instead of simply playing them straight. Of course, all this is easier said than done. But when the rewards are so great, and the risks (remember, we start with uninspiring source material) so marginal, well, wouldn’t failure to embrace the ham just be a recipe for… ridicule?