Devil Survivor 2: Season 2 is probably the best way to think of Record Breaker, in fact. The second campaign has more taxing, complex battles, but also more of the cast hanging out between fights, chatting and slowly learning to trust each other as the world falls apart all around them. No one character is particularly exciting or spectacularly written, but they're solid executions on the traditional anime cliches that the SMT series trades in, and the added wrinkle of only having a limited amount of time per in-game day to spend with them means you start thinking about budgeting your friendships.
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There's something about old English that gets RPG localizations going. Maybe it's the often medieval settings, or all the swords, or the fact that it's actually impossible to cast magic without sounding like a Ren Faire reject (seriously, try it sometime), but any game with a high fantasy air to it going to be scripted like an episode of Game of Thrones. What's interesting though is that this localization choice has been around almost since video game localization started. It's a thread that runs through Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and dozens of other RPGs from pretty much every era of gaming. And every time it's served a very specific purpose. What's really weird is that it never served the same purpose each time. It's a not-so-unique stylistic choice with a real variety of uniquely weird choices.
Probably the first game that went full-on Arthurian in America was Dragon Warrior (nee Quest). In Japan, Dragon Quest was one of the early Famicom days to break one million copies. Thing is, since the Famicom was so popular, and there were so few games to buy, pretty much every game sold a million copies. But then Dragon Quest 2 happened, and by the time of Dragon Quest 3, we were getting rumours in Nintendo Power that the Japanese national guard was deployed at game stores to keep kids from buying the game on a school day. So Nintendo was pretty keen on making it the same kind of sensation here as it was at home.
The problem was, Dragon Quest wasn't the grassroots success a lot of people sold it as. Part of that series' huge success can be attributed to the fact that it had promo art from Dragon Ball's Akira Toriyama. The Toriyama connection then got Dragon Quest comics into Shonen Jump, the suer-popular children's comics magazine that serialized Dragon Ball at the time, which in turn kept Dragon Quest on the brain for the millions of kids still looking for decent Famicom games. Toriyama wasn't the only talent that drummed up continued interest in the series either, composer Koichi Sugiyama was relatively popular for his work on anime like Gatchaman and Cyborg 009, and designer Yuji Horii was a writer known for his regular video games column in Shonen Jump, as well as his script for the Portopia Serial Murder Case, a beloved Japanese computer adventure game. Horii's writing was known for being charming and clever, and his games were always designed with the belief that no game should ever be too challenging for the ordinary player. Adventure games and RPGs weren't necessarily reflex based games, the skills required were purely mental, and could eventually be brute forced with enough patience.
That last bit was what Nintendo was banking on when it brought Dragon Quest over as Dragon Warrior, and gave it away for free with subscriptions to Nintendo Power. Dragon Quest worked for all ages, with gameplay simple enough for a kid, and dialogue charming enough to engage adults. But a literal translation of Horii's writing would have sapped the game of all its character, so the localizers elected to recast the game in faux-Shakespearean "thee"s and "thou"s. It was a way to keep the game cute and clever, without having to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the entire script- an efficiency measure, but one that stuck around in RPGs for a very long time.
Dragon Quest 2 and 3 held on to the old English style for a few more years within the Dragon Quest series, but 4 dropped it due to the more global nature of the plot and characters. Though, DQIV's DS port had an accent-filled localization, complete with completely incomprehensible Scottish accents for some of the cast. But that wasn't RPG localizers last chance to put Horii's dialogue in a time machine. Chrono Trigger's Frog speaks in the absolute most imprenetrable old English I've ever seen in a game. "Mayhaps a hidden door lurks night?" he croaks. "Let us search the environs." Meanwhile, the Japanese version opts for the much more reasonable "Yes, there's a secret passage somewhere in this room."
In fact, the choice to make Frog a cartoonish Shakespearean buffoon is super weird in light of his attitude in the Japanese version. Japanese Frog is a more boisterous knight, with a propensity to call enemy leader Magus a bastard, and a zeal for beating up monsters. As far as I can tell, the choice was to keep him more in line with Western expectations of what a medieval knight should sound like, though the DS port toned down his "hast"s and "dost"s considerable. Around the same time, Chrono Trigger's translator Ted Woolsley also worked on Final Fantasy 6, where he gave Cyan, the technologically-inept knight a more Shakespearean bent, though not nearly to the extent of Frog. In fact, Cyan's Japanese was similarly archaic, though more in line with how samurai and ninja would have spoken.
So, sometimes it's a character thing. Other times though, it's a space thing. Etrian Odyssey II doesn't feature too many archaicisms, but it does refer to almost every shield in the game as an aspis, which technically isn't old English, but we'll accept ancient Greek for our purposes because it never comes up. Etrian Odyssey limits weapon names to 10 characters, including spaces. In Japanese, ten characters might as well be a sentence, but in English, it barely gets across two words. The word "shield" plus the space before it eats up seven characters, leaving only three to describe what kind of shield it is. Meanwhile "aspis" is only six characters with the space, leaving a roomy whole four letters for an adjective. Archaic speech patterns might not always be known for their efficiency, but sometimes out-of-use words are just what a smart localization needs.
Sometimes though it's just weird and crazy annoying. In what the localizers say was an attempt to evoke the high fantasy grandeur of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, Capcom's Dragon's Dogma is packed to the rafters with strange, out-of-use, and archaic terminology. For example, the fire sell is called "Ingle", an older English word for a fireplace, while the ice spell, "Frazil" is named after a needle-like ice formation. It can get confusing, especially when characters heap on the archaic grammar, but it allows for some clever workarounds. Since your character can be male or female, characters address you as "Ser", a gender neutral version of sir and lady that, while not necessarily an old word, definitely looks and sounds like one. Iit fits in seamlessly with the localization and cuts back on voice acting work without raising any more eyebrows than the rest of the script.
In a similar sense, the Ivalice series of Final Fantasy games use old English to set the tone of the world. It's a little different than Dragon Quest's attempts to inject some much needed character into boring RPG text though. The Ivalice games span hundreds of thousands of years in the timeline of a fictional world, and the specific choices made in localization over the years really reflects that. Final Fantasy XII is chronologically the first game in the Ivalice timeline, but takes place during the world's golden age. There's a distinct olde English flavour to everything, but it's more Victorian than Elizabethan, in fact, the game's bestiary text was styled after a Victorian handbook on medicinal herbs. One of the cleverer localization choices made by Ivalice series translator Alexander O. Smith, as well as frequent partner Joseph Reeder, was to recast the antagonistic empire's characters as British, and have the friendly rebels speak in American accents. Sure, it's not exactly what the Japanese writers had in mind, but it very quickly gets across the idea that the rebels are on your side, and the empire isn't.
Meanwhile, it was a calculated difference from Smith. he also translated the chronologically final game in the Ivalcie series, Vagrant Story, which still has that archaic flavour, but is distinctly more modern in places. "All because of this religious freedom! Too much freedom, too many gods. Let those cultist cur-dogs run loose, and they will bite you. Gods! While our Parliament cowers..." is a lot more readable to a modern audience than Shakespeare. In between there's also the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games, which Smith worked on, but those have a much more modern take, most likely because they were aimed at younger audience who might not have been able to pick up on the purple prose. Put together with Square Enix's updated translation of Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSP (the middle game in the Ivalice series) and the changing speech patterns give a really strong sense that there's one world grounding all these stories, but it's shifting, ever so slightly.
Basically, old English isn't quite the cheap and easy localization tool that Dragon Warrior would lead you to believe. It's a shorthand for the middle ages, sure, but it can also build a world, set a mood, save some space, or even just make a frog sound like he stepped out of someone's horrible Shakespeare fanfic. Truly the finest use of language.
About 20 hours into Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, the game stopped me to teach me how to use a skill I’ve been using since the beginning of the game. Then, it added a minor wrinkle to this ability, and stopped to teach me how to use that. Then, in the next room, it stopped me to talk about it one more time. This was 20 hours in, very close to the end of the game. I almost threw my 3DS across the room when in the very next room, the game stopped to teach me how to use this ability AGAIN.
Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is not a bad game In fact, half of it is an excellent game. The other half of it is one of the most infuriating RPGs I’ve ever had the displeasure of sitting back and reading. Dream Team is not a half bad game; it’s a half good one.
Dream Team is the fourth Mario game in the Mario and Luigi series of RPGs, one of two series spun out of Squaresoft’s Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars. The Paper Mario series plays a little more like a Mario game, with a sidescrolling perspective in the overworld, and a very minor use of stats. The Mario and Luigi games are slightly more traditional in their RPG-ness, other than the fact that, like Mario RPG and Paper Mario, the game uses properly timed button presses during attacks to make them stronger. It’s a fantastic marriage of Mario’s action game roots to an RPG battle system, and turns the usual slog through turn-based battles into an exciting game of reading enemy tells, finding the timing to counterattack, and then perfecting the timing on your own attacks.
This part of Dream Team, the combat half of the game, is spectacular. The game is loaded with plenty of interesting, challenging enemy attack patterns to learn, and boss fights start becoming a serious challenge pretty quickly. I found myself dying on bosses multiple times, just because they get so tricky. Fortunately, dying lets you just restart the current battle instead of having to go back to the title screen, which makes the challenge fun rather than brutally frustrating.
The frustrating part of the game is everything else. From the presentation to the dialog to the puzzles to the overworld, nothing else about this game works the way you’d hope it should. While the game has gorgeous spritework (I found myself obsessing over the tiny animation details, like Mario adjusting his cap after landing from a particularly high jump in battle), that level of detail isn’t matched by the music. There’s only one battle theme, one boss theme, and one tune for each area, and you hear them a lot. It gets incredibly grating very quickly.
You can’t turn to the dialog to keep you entertained though, because while the localization staff tried their hardest to pump the exposition-laden script full of jokes, they just couldn’t keep up with amount of chattiness in this game. Characters rarely talk for a long period of time, but they do take a page out of Final Fantasy 13’s book and give you some exposition before making you walk across the room for another five minutes of their lecture on the history of this island you don’t care about.
I don’t think there’s a single room where the game doesn’t wrest control of the camera away from you to highlight the solution to that room’s puzzle, and then has one of your two Navi-like companions pop out to wonder if what the camera just focused in on is the solution to a puzzle. And then when you solve this puzzle in 30 seconds because the answer was spelled out for you, they will fly out of Mario’s back pocket again to comment on how that WAS the solution and boy they’re sure proud you figured out that brain-buster.
It’s a toothless exercise in going through the motions, exacerbated by the fact that it never just shuts the hell up and lets you enjoy the combat. Other than backtracking, there are no 10 minutes of playtime in this game that go uninterrupted by some NPC who will heavy-handedly reveal the solution to a puzzle, give you some exposition, then maybe manage to crack one cute joke.
The localization staff deserves some real recognition for managing to punch up this script as much as they did. They tried to make as many jokes as they possibly could, but the sheer amount of text in this game must have overwhelmed them. It’s a real shame, because the game’s predecessor, 2010’s Bowser’s Inside Story, managed to have a consistently punchy script all the way through. Mario and Luigi only had one tagalong “helper” to chat up tutorials, Bowser rampaged through exposition because he just wanted to break stuff, and the game’s villain, Fawful, spouted incomprehensible gibberish most of the time. It was great.
Boswer’s Inside Story had the same structure as Dream Team too, with half the game taking place in a sidescrolling, platformer-lite world, and the other taking place in a more traditional, top down overworld. In this game however, instead of Mario and Luigi spelunking inside Bowser’s internal organs for the sidescrolling portions, Mario delves into the dreams of his ever-forgotten younger brother. In these dream worlds, Mario fights alone, with Luigi’s many dream selves acting as afterimages that power up his attacks. The battles also let you move up and down or face left and right with the circle pad when dodging certain attacks, which adds an appreciated level of extra depth to the combat.
But again, the combat is great. If it weren’t for the fact that playing as Bowser in the previous game was so fun, Dream Team would have the best combat in the series. It’s the constant hand holding and exposition that drives me up a wall. It almost feels like a reaction to last year’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which refused to hold your hand so much that it never even hinted at the solutions to the increasingly obtuse puzzles. Sticker Star hated holding your hand; it wanted nothing to do with it. Dream Team loves your hand, and wants to hold it so tight and never let go. It wants to take your hand and lead it to this item box, which it will make you stand under and show you how the A button makes you jump, 25 hours into the game.
I can understand tutorials in games, they aren’t a big deal most of the time. Ten hours into Dream Team, I thought I was finally seeing the end of them. That’s a long time for a game, but the combat was so good that I was willing to accept it. And then they didn’t stop. They never stopped. Ever. Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is a half good game. The combat is the good half, everything else is the bad half. It’s a testament to how great the combat is that I want to recommend the game at all, but unless you’re jonesing for a new Mario and Luigi fix, I don’t know if anyone can make it past the constant hand-holding, exposition and tutorials. If you need to play it though, do yourself a favour and maybe do something else when everyone’s talking, you won’t miss much.
Between Akira, Godzilla, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the Shin Megami Tensei games, Tokyo can’t quite seem to catch a break in Japanese media. Like seeing the broken Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, the ruins of post-apocalypse Tokyo are a symbol that the world can never be the same. It’s also inevitable. If it’s Japanese and the world is being destroyed, Tokyo is going to be destroyed; gruesomely, and often with a strong message about nuclear weapons.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is the fouth (or fifth, depending who you ask) in a series of games that delight in destroying Tokyo, only to rebuild it and destroy it again for the next instalment in the franchise. But this time, the game doesn’t being in Tokyo pre or post-apocalypse. Instead it begins in the pastoral Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a feudal nation divided into castes that has no ties to Tokyo, Japan, or any nation on earth, really. People speak in a dialect that can only be described as Shakespearean, the knights are called Samurai (pronounced SAW-moo-rai, which only gets more infuriating as the game goes on), and demons spill out of a hole in the ground known as Naraku.
Okay, so maybe there’s a bit of Japan in there.
Your character is made a Samurai at the beginning of the game, and given a gauntlet they can use to negotiate with the demons in Naraku and summon them in battle. It’s almost like Pokémon, except the demons are far more disposable. Once they’ve learned all their skills, the game recommends you fuse two or more together into a stronger demon, which inherits its “parents” attacks. The more varied a demon’s skills, the more useful they are in combat, which focuses around the series trademark Press Turn system.
Every character in the party is given one turn, hitting an enemy’s elemental weakness or landing a critical hit grants them an extra turn. However, hitting an enemy with an element that they nullify, reflect or drain costs you extra turns. This is true for enemies too, which means having a party with plenty of resistances keeps enemies from overwhelming you with their bonus turns. A new feature added to the system for SMT4 is smirking. When a character gains a bonus turn or nullifies an opponent’s, they have a chance to smirk, which gives them incredible stat boosts, and makes all attacks miss them until they get their next turn. It can totally turn the tide of a battle, but of course, enemies can smirk too, and they never waste it on a useless attack.
In true SMT and Atlus tradition, this makes the game very, very hard. You will be dying a lot. However, unlike most SMT games, you’re given to option to save anywhere, as well as difficulty settings, and the opportunity to pay your way back from death. Whenever you die, you’re sent to Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, who offers to let you revive for a fee, payable in either Macca, the in-game currency, or Play Coins, the 3DS’s system level pedometer reward.
Unfortunately, this happens EVERY time you die, with no way to opt out, meaning whenever you die, you have to go through a few dialog choices telling Charon you don’t want to pay, then confirm that you don’t want to pay, and then finally you get a game over screen that sends you back to the main menu. The game warns you when a boss is coming; you’re never thrown into the fray without a chance to save. It feels like the game was designed with save points, and then hastily retrofitted to let you save anywhere, without anyone realizing that it made the whole revival system moot and frustrating.
But back to the Tokyo thing.
As the game progreses, you eventually find yourself in Tokyo, but only after a few hours of digging deeper and deeper into Naraku. About six hours of the game take place exclusively in the menu-driven Mikado. Dungeons like Naraku and a nearby forest are explored in a third person perspective, much like Shin Megami Tensei 3, or the more popular Persona spin-off games, but in Mikado, getting to those places is as simple as selecting them from a menu. No world map, no exploration, no getting lost.
In Tokyo however, you explore a top down world map with buildings you can enter to explore in third person. The map is massive, complicated, and is sometimes best navigated with an actual map of Tokyo in hand, but it’s also littered with treasures and demons to negotiate onto your side. The stark dichotomy isn’t lost on anyone who’s played an SMT game before, it’s a reference to the game’s other constant, the alignment system.
In a page torn straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons instruction manual, players in SMT make choices that determine their alignment with either Chaos or Law. Law traditionally represents angels, dogma, peace and the status quo. Chaos is associated with demons, and revolves around individuality, revolution and the tenet that might makes right. The rigid structure of Mikado is law. The player can never get lost and can only be hurt if they put themselves in harm’s way, but can also never explore, never see anything that Mikado doesn’t explicitly want you to see. Tokyo is chaos. The apocalypse has left factions warring for control of the destroyed city, with the weak having no place in the ensuing ruins, but the player is free to go wherever they please, even if it means they’ll get horribly lost.
Some players might find that they enjoy Mikado’s structure and simplicity. Some players might want that status quo to be shaken up and prefer the constant danger of Tokyo to the ignorance of Mikado. But for players who find both to be too extreme, there’s a middle ground to the two alignments, one that often represents the “good” endings of the SMT games; neutral. Neutral is associated with humans, balance, rationality, and the ability to make a change. Of course, there’s no good or evil, but historically speaking, the canon endings of SMT games are usually the neutral ones. SMT4 ingeniously ties the games very structure into this message Extremism on either side isn't right, but both sides have a point, there can be a balance, there should be a balance, and you, the player, should strive to find it.
It’s incredibly clever game design and would make the game absolutely perfect, if not for one minor problem: it leads to a game with two problematic halves making an even more problematic whole. Mikado is too linear, too rigid, but Tokyo is too open, too chaotic. Of course, neither is “bad”, just like the alignments, but neither works if you ignore the other half. And while that dovetails with the game’s message perfectly, it also means you have to warp between Mikado and Tokyo a lot, which is less than ideal. Like the revival system, it feels like an excellent idea that’s just executed incorrectly, if not poorly.
The connections between Mikado and Tokyo run deeper than just gameplay and story integration. There’s a story that underlies the whole thing, but it never overstays its welcome, characters are never terribly chatty, and cutscenes rarely interrupt the flow of battles and exploration. It’s an interesting supernatural/sci-fi mystery that stays intriguing the whole way through. But, there’s no way to skip cutscenes or dialog. You can fast forward through it, which works well enough, but when you’ve died on one boss five times, and you’ve just spent all the extra time either going through Charon’s dialog or just exiting to the home menus and restarting the software, those extra minutes of fast-forwarded dialog really add up.
In terms of pure gameplay, battles are addictive, and it never stops being fun to suss out enemy weaknesses and exploit them. But Tokyo can occasionally be a pain to explore, and Mikado often feels too boring and pointless. Tying those gameplay elements into the narrative and themes of the game is brilliant and deserves to be commended, I just can’t help but feel it could have been done with some more elegance.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is, fittingly, a game of dualities. It wants to be hard in an old school way, and forces you to strategize carefully and thoughtfully in battle. But it also wants to be friendly and modern, offering you the ability to save anywhere and revive upon death. It wants to be chaotic and unpredictable, but also wants to get you right to the action when necessary. It wants to be a linear, story-driven game, but it also wants to give you plenty of choices, both in dialog and in gameplay. It wants to be both Chaos and Law at once, and asks you to find your own balance between the two extremes. Unfortunately, sometimes it just can’t find the balance necessary to make itself a flawless game.