Monday, October 21, 2013

Papers, Please

Papers, Please
Developer: Lucas Pope
Publisher: 3309 LLC
Simulation - PC
Multiple Save Slots
1 player
Papers, Please

Gaming has been a mixed bag for me in the last 5 years. I've somehow gotten a reputation that I hate everything. Truth to be told, if a game doesn't push any creative boundaries, it's hard for it to keep my interest. Everything's been done before, Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V'd, and re-skinned. Enter Papers, Please.

In this current age of terrorism and government paranoia, Papers, Please could not be any more relevant.  Presented as a border officer simulation, gameplay revolves around you checking passerby's documents to make sure everything is in order for entry into your country. Since it is your job, you get paid for how many people you process, and get docked money for mistakes you make. Balance that with the expenses you have (food, rent, etc), and hopefully you'll earn a living. Sounds simple enough. But attempting to cultivate a life under a backdrop of political strife and a totalitarian government is hardly simple.

What makes Papers, Please shine is that there are stories going on that you know little about. You are NOT the focus of these stories, and are often the bystander. Nevertheless, in your position as border officer, you are affected by and can affect these plotlines. Travelers will try to make conversation with you, even requesting an occasional favor. Sometimes the requests are innocuous. Sometimes they're not. However you decide, there could be consequences.

In addition, the hostile political climate makes each day uncertain. There will be times when your day is interrupted, causing the checkpoint station to close early, affecting your earnings. Conflict between nations may mean that your orders change, and you are commanded to treat one people group differently than another. Since every day brings different visitors, differing political conditions, and different orders, the gameplay ends up mirroring the volatility of the game world.

All of this adds up to an incredible emotional connection with the role that you play. When you let someone in the country that you shouldn't, or turn away those that you should let in, there is an impact. You are making judgment calls every moment. Do you follow orders? Do you do what is "right"? Are those two motivations compatible or mutually exclusive? And how do your decisions impact your family whom you support? These questions are impossible to avoid. It's all part of what makes Papers, Please more than a sum of its parts.

Even with the oppressive political overtones and multiple subplots coursing through, some have called the actual gameplay mechanics of Papers, Please uninteresting. I am not one of them. Each day in the game has its own character, events, and mechanics, so it's impossible to ever get completely comfortable. As soon as your inspector workday begins, I found it a frantic race to get people processed as quickly as possible, absorb the dialog and random events occurring, and doing it while avoiding errors. It's kind of like a Phoenix Wright-like contradiction-finding adventure game, an inspections sim and a score attack game all-in-one.

There are 20 endings in all, and an Endless Mode, if you can unlock it.  (I haven't.)

This is my 2013 game of the year.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Persona 2: Innocent Sin

Persona 2: Innocent Sin
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
RPG - Playstation Portable
1 player
Persona 2 Innocent Sin

This is the most irritating game I've played in a long time.

It's disappointing because I was really looking forward to the game. Persona 2: Innocent Sin is the first of a two-part Shin Megami Tensei spinoff RPG. Moreover, this upgraded PSP port of a Playstation game is the first time this title has been available in English.

I think part of my issue is that P2:IS is not Soul Hackers. As my first exposure to the SMT universe, Soul Hackers was a very different kind of game, with a larger emphasis on combat decisions, demon summoning, and exploration. SH was so interesting to me that even playing SMT3 Nocturne was somewhat of a letdown too. But Persona 2: Innocent Sin comes up shortest because other than some very loose SMT characteristics, it primarily plays like any other RPG, and a bad one at that.

P2:IS is based in a futuristic Japan-esque place named Sumaru. There is a mysterious presence named Joker, who is causing a ruckus, stealing souls and leaving victims in a vegetable state. As people who have had friends or surroundings targeted by Joker, a group of students and adults band together to stop him in his tracks.

The story and game unfold in a traditional turn-based RPG style. From what I understand, there were some tactical positioning elements in the first Persona game, but Persona 2 has only the typical menu commands with two additional options.

A "Persona" can be summoned for your each of your characters. Personas are spiritual beings with their own strengths, weaknesses and skills. What this means in practice here is that your party members can equip a Persona, and thus gains access to those Personas spells. If that persona is immune to fire and is weak to water, then your character takes on those attributes too. The good thing is, you can swap personas each turn without penalty. They level up and gain access to additional skills. Luckily, their skills are capped and known, so you can choose whether or not to spend the time leveling them up. In the end, Personas are more or less treated like equipment.

Demon negotiation is a little convoluted. Basically, demons can react to things you say or do in four different emotions. If you trigger one emotion 3x in the course of the dialog, then that's what the end of the negotiation. Make a demon angry 3x in that discussion, and the demon will attack you. Make a demon fearful 3x, and they'll run away.  Make a demon interested 3x, and they'll give you cards of their arcana type. Make a demon joyful 3x, and they'll ask if you want to form a pact. A pact does not mean they join you, just that if you negotiate with them in the future and make them joyful, you'll get some additional options from them. If you have a pact, and make the demon interested 3x in the future, they'll give you more cards of their arcana than you would normally get, and they'll give you bonus wild cards.

Since you can't get demons to join you, the way that you get personas in this game is to have them created using those tarot cards you collect through "interested" demons. For example, it takes 56 Hermit cards to create a Nekomata persona. You can fuse those 56 hermit cards with skill cards like "Dia" or bonus strength to give your new Nekomata those bonuses. By creating different personas, you can stock up to 10 of them for swapping in and out during battles.

So far so good. The systems themselves aren't particularly innovative or interesting, but they're competent. What went wrong? Execution.

At every level, the game mangles the details. The most cringe-worthy issue is the slowness of the game. You'll be fighting random battles a LOT. This is par for the course, given that SMT ties demon/persona creation with encounters. That's not the issue. In other SMT games, battles can occur pretty briskly, particularly after turning off battle animations. The difference in Soul Hackers of animations on vs. off was like night and day. Here? Not so much. Persona 2 has the uncanny ability to make each of the thousands of battles as painfully sluggish as possible. Even with animation skip, there are pauses before and after each action. Group damage is dealt not simultaneously, but sequentially. Demon negotiation is also frustrating, because some of your choices have animations that cannot be skipped.

This is partly aggravated by the UMD load times. P2:IS allows you to do an install to circumvent those issues. From where I'm sitting, it doesn't seem to actually do anything. Whenever you enter a battle, exit a battle, or do demon negotiation, you can hear the UMD drive whirring along. In practice, towards the end, I began running from almost every encounter, because it was such a big waste of time. When a game is so bad that you avoid playing the bulk of it, something is majorly wrong.  It's not like running mattered, because the game challenge is pretty easy. Affinities don't seem to matter as much as other SMT games, so that it hardly mattered that I was under-leveled or didn't have the right exploits from running so much.

The systems themselves don't really differentiate themselves from non-SMT RPGs out there. One of the biggest aspects of SMT is demon fusion and knowing when to summon demons. Here in P2, Personas don't seem to matter that much other than giving you a set of spells. Their affinities don't have as large of an effect as they do in other SMT games. Moreover, it takes so much more to create a Persona in this game, since they are "bought" rather than fused, that there really is just a limited selection of them.

Persona mangles what you spend the most time doing (fighting) and screws up what people play SMT games for (demon/persona creation).  Deeply disappointing.