A retrospective for GameCamp 4

GameCamp is an event where fans of board games and video games can come together and discuss their favourite hobby. The fourth gathering was held in London South Bank University and this year I was lucky enough to attend. Despite suffering from partial deafness in one ear (I’ll have to get that checked out) I had a great time and learnt a lot from the various game developers who were holding debates.

This is the mighty whiteboard found in the base camp room. Any of the attendees can write down a game or discussion that they’d like to hold in one of the designated rooms – then it’s down to the rest of the visitors to decide whether they’d like to attend it. It all feels very creative and democratic, providing gamers with a chance to talk and play about anything that they’re passionate about.

The first talk that I chose to sit in on was about free range video games. Programmers argued that the measly pay and unfair hours that some game developers work is unfair, and that consumers should be made more aware of this. If some games were labelled in a similar manner to free range produce, the discussion questioned whether gamers would choose to purchase ethically. Do players care about the working conditions of triple A game studios? Or are they just concerned with getting the most play for their pound? It was an interesting argument, especially when the popularity of small indie developers were considered.

Another debate that I really enjoyed was about 2D art used in video games. I’m a big fan of the genre, but had never considered the technical and artistic limitations of choosing between pixel art, vectors or other digital mediums. Listening to the game developers explain why pixel art had remained so popular was insightful and added to my appreciation of modern game design.

One of the stranger talks concerned the political implications and representations of LittleBigPlanet. The host argued that the campaign in the original game stereotyped real world locations and cultures, encouraging players to plunder each country of all their resources. Personally I thought this was a complete misreading of a very light hearted game, but nevertheless it helped to create some interesting debate about the portrayal of ethnic minorities in video games.

I came away from GameCamp 4 feeling humbled and educated. If you’re a game designer or have ever wanted to debate the culture of video games with other people, this is a fantastic event that I can heartily recommend. Everyone that I met was very friendly, courteous and interesting to listen to. It was a shame that my damaged right ear affected my experience, because otherwise it was a very pleasant and memorable day.


Serena Williams struts her stuff for Top Spin 4

When this video flashed up on Kotaku, I couldn’t help but let out an exasperated groan. For every baby step that the industry makes to try and improve the perception of gamers, it takes just one video like this to put it back at square one.

I’m not much of a sports fan, but Top Spin 4 has piqued my interest in the last few months. I loved playing Virtua Tennis in my local arcade and have been looking for an alternative with a little more depth and realism. Top Spin 4 seems to fit the bill.

Watching this trailer just makes me angry though. The commercial manages to completely degrade the sport, Serena Williams and the use of the Sony Move in the space of less than 60 seconds. Is this really what it takes to get players excited about a new tennis title? Come on 2K Sports… you’re better than this.

(Aside: I have nothing against Serena Williams or the junk situated in her trunk. There’s just a time and a place, okay? ;D)

Update: Joystiq have managed to get an interesting statement out of 2K Sports. Apparently the video wasn’t meant to be seen by the public: “As part of the process for creating marketing campaigns to support our titles, we pursue a variety of creative avenues. This video is not part of the title’s final marketing campaign and its distribution was unauthorized.”

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light

Square Enix tries to recapture the origins of the Final Fantasy franchise in a portable adventure that is both charming and infuriatingly archaic.

Followers of the JRPG genre align themselves into two fairly distinct camps. One recognises and embraces the need for evolution, giving recognition for the fresh but often flawed gameplay mechanics in recent titles such as Final Fantasy XIII and Resonance of Fate. The other condemns these failed ideas as the reason for the genre’s recent decline, resisting the trends of linear exploration and emphasis on graphical presentation. They frequently call for a return to the ‘good old days’, where turn based combat was king and random enemy encounters were the norm.

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is a game built almost solely for the latter. Everything about it reeks of an adventure that could have been published in the 80s or 90s. Take the plotline for instance; the game surrounds a boy named Brandt, who is summoned by the king to rescue a kidnapped princess. The four other heroes include a spoilt girl from the royal family, a loyal soldier of the kingdom and a reluctant, brooding chap. They’re all purposefully stereotypical and pigeonholed into a journey that is predictable at every turn.

Weapons, magic and additional items can all be found and bought in the local villages. Combat is strictly turn based; party members exert varying number of action points (that act like magic of MP) for every physical attack or spell. Akin to some of the older Final Fantasy iterations, party members can obtain ‘crowns’ that change their job class as the game progresses.

Sound familiar? It should. For better and worse, Square Enix has chosen to make this portable experience incredibly traditional. Older players will welcome some of this familiarity in a similar manner to fans of Pokémon or The Legend of Zelda; retreading a well worn path can feel reassuring and comforting in The 4 Heroes of Light. Unfortunately, many of the gripes I have with the JRPG genre have been brought forward as well. In comparison with modern video game standards, it’s very hard to forgive some of the aging design choices.

The first is random encounters. One of the advancements that I’ve come to cherish in the RPG genre is the ability to pick and choose my battles. It allows players to grind only when they feel that it’s necessary and conversely push onward when they just want to progress the story. The Persona series and Final Fantasy XII/ XIII are shining examples of this.

In my opinion, returning to a random encounter system in Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is counter intuitive. It’s irritating to become bogged down in an area with a particularly high encounter rate, increasingly hammering the attack button just to get back to dungeon exploring. Those who argue that grinding is ‘a necessary evil’ are wrong – more often than not, it’s just a cheap way of extending the overall length of the game.

The inventory system is also rather baffling. With only 15 slots per character (which include obligatory spell tomes and equipment) I found myself depositing items in the village storage hut with alarming regularity. In the more lengthy and intricate dungeons I found myself having to discard some of the weapons and health tonics that I was picking up; a wasteful and annoying consequence of the system.

Variance between dungeons is excellent, but the aesthetics within them are monotonous and dull. The repetition of textures means that it’s also easy to lose your sense of direction; the absence of a touch screen map (such as the one in the excellent The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks) is sorely missed.

The 4 Heroes of Light redeems itself with a fantastic presentation throughout. The 3D engine is very impressive, utilising a picture book aesthetic that has rarely been used elsewhere. Combining a water colour palette and cel-shaded line art, the characters really pop out from the screen and help bring some life to the adventure. The way that party members change their appearance when you swap their equipment is another neat touch. The towns are expansive and occasionally take up multiple levels, filled with interesting houses and townspeople. It all adds to the grandeur of a global adventure, something lost in many linear JRPGs.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t play this game to completion. Maybe that deducts some of the credibility of this review, but I would argue that I still experienced a thorough representation of the game. If you’re a fan of old-school RPGs, I can recommend this as a solid portable adventure for the Nintendo DS. For anyone that champions the recent advancements in the genre, you’re best looking elsewhere.

Persona 4: Part Two

With 20 hours now showing on my play time for Persona 4, I think it was about time for another update. Finally settled in to the unorthodox groove and style of the game, it’s now much easier to comment on growing trends or irritations forming in the latest Shin Megami Tensei instalment. Luckily, these aren’t many in an otherwise spectacular JRPG for the Playstation 2.

Don't worry, these are NOT the actual graphics xD

Don't worry, these are NOT the actual graphics xD

Firstly, although the dungeons are still devilishly hard (for even the most hardcore of gamers, bearing in mind that I’m still playing on Normal rather than Expert) I felt that P4 is much more manageable than Persona 3. In P3, “one more” knock-downs frequently stuck you on the receiving end of a constant barrage of attacks, leaving you unable to defend yourself until your untimely death. Remember that when playing a game by Atlus, you don’t have a chance to retry a battle unless you’re playing on the beginner difficulty setting. This means that every time you fail you have to reload from your last save point, which is outside the dungeon and therefore often a couple of hours before you were defeated.

Luckily Persona 4 has fixed this rut, making battles much smoother and the follow up attacks less overpowering. For example, when their social link is high enough allies can now aid you back onto your feet after you’ve been brought down by the enemy. Not having to worry about your characters growing tired or falling ill is a vast improvement, leaving the only restriction to your exploration with the amount of SP in your party. This can be a pain, but it ensures that you come back to the dungeon at least a few times before tackling the boss – which trust me is a good thing, because these bosses are tough. With minimal weaknesses and often brutal HP depleting attacks, you’ll really need to stay on your toes.

Yukiko, unleashing her Persona with colour co-ordinated glasses!

Yukiko, unleashing her Persona with colour co-ordinated glasses!

As mentioned in my last post, the dungeons are split up this time with separate themes for each person that you’re saving. Trawling through floors isn’t the most invigorating experience, but it’s better than last time and helps to add to the depth of the characters. For example, to save Kanji Tatsumi my party had to investigate a steamy bath house, with voices that echoed his sexual issues.

The characters are growing to be some of the best Persona creations to date. I really can’t decide on a favourite, which makes the social link events even better to divulge in. As any RPG fan knows, story is paramount and caring for the characters really helps to bring it alive. Teddie and a couple of the high school-ers may have annoying voice actors, but they can always be switched off if you’re finding them particularly frustrating. There is a lot of humour and quirks to be found in the investigation team, but in contrast each person has darker problems that you can discover and solve over time. It feels rewarding and makes the crucial decision on how to spend your hours even tougher.

Each characters offers rewards and insights if you choose to spend time with them

Each characters offers rewards and insights if you choose to spend time with them

The music, which I couldn’t praise enough in Part One is starting to grow a little bit thin. I’m hoping that some of the tracks will change when the seasons roll over or something, because at the moment… hearing the same jingle for every battle and every time you leave the classroom gets tiresome. This might be expected for most games after 20 hours, but Atlas knows how exceptionally long their titles are and should have planned accordingly. The compositions are a great blend of J-Pop, but they just need a few more tracks to spice them up.

The story is leaked incredibly well, with the rescue after each dungeon giving you just enough hints to keep the mystery interesting. How Persona 4 was designed to be so non-linear and yet so well paced is a testament to the time system that they’ve managed to create. Although a clock isn’t literally ticking as you’re walking around, knowing that you can only perform a limited amount of actions before someone is murdered brings on a real sense of tension.

Many gamers will pour over walkthroughs and guides to achieve the maximum exam scores and social links, but I really advise players to play without one for the first run through. Getting some answers wrong and making sour decisions is all part of life and actually makes the experience that much more realistic. You’re meant to be a High School student, remember? On the second time you play Persona 4 you’ll retain all of your personal stats (Courage, Knowledge, Expression, etc) making that perfect completion that bit easier.

The story is darker and more realistic than your traditional "fantasy world journey" affair

The story is darker and more realistic than your traditional "fantasy world journey" affair

Japanese culture is overflowing in Persona 4. If you know nothing about the formalities and traditions in Japan, P4 will teach you a surprisingly large amount about their rural life. I have even more respect for the small translation team signed onto this project, who not only turned it around in such a short space of time but managed to keep it as close to the original as possible. The school cultural festival, the use of honorifics, family expectations and education are all portrayed with a large amount of realism. We can’t all afford to experience the life of our favourite countries and so Persona 4 does a more than adequate job of filling the void.

Final thoughts for Part Two? As you become familiar with the combat and time system of Persona 4 it simply gets better and better, especially when the protagonist is released from his leash to act as he pleases. How to balance socialising and saving the world can be difficult, but as long as you don’t worry too much I’ve found Persona 4 to be rewarding on multiple levels. The characters, story and presentation keep on giving at the moment and as long they continue to do so the few gameplay flaws will be more than concealed.

Persona 4: Part One

The latest instalment of Atlus’ long running Shin Megami Tensei series is Persona 4, which I showed an unpacking video for a few weeks back. With my Xbox 360 out of action I’ve finally had the time to delve into this title, but because of the long play time I’ve decided to split it into a number of parts.

What’s instantly hit me from the start is the dedication to presentation. Just like in Persona 3, the introduction video is a slick combination of anime characters and J-pop music. Even the title screen is a blend of moving silhouettes, block colours and nostalgic score. Atlus have learnt from previous outings that even with a low resolution Playstation 2 engine, it’s possible to have a unique style that shines. The graphics aren’t revolutionary but instead worked and refined to a tee. All of the menu screens are different and lively; it certainly gives the impression of ultra-trendy teenagers in Japan.

As far as story goes, I’m as always thoroughly intrigued. As a transfer student from the city, you arrive in a countryside town called Inaba. Should be a quiet affair in comparison to the metropolis of P3 right? Wrong. The plot is as dark as ever, unfolding a series of murders in front of your eyes. Victims are strung upside down to television poles, linked to a strange world accessed by the ‘Midnight Channel’ on TV. The channel also has a rumour that by looking into your set on a rainy night, you can see your soul mate on the other side. However, as you and your companions investigate and discover your own ‘Persona’ (a being originating from your soul that can fight on your own behalf) the revelations become much more complicated.

What really draws me in though is the realistic Japanese setting. There is no fantasy world, no great journey or strange mythology to surround the RPG experience. All of the characters have real problems; the every day activities are what you would expect a teenager to participate in and from what I’ve heard so far, it’s a pretty accurate representation of life in rural Japan. There are time restrictions on how long victims survive and a strategic weather system in Inaba that really gives a sense of tension. Each morning, afternoon and evening can only be spent doing one activity so I’ve already found myself carefully planning my time. When you’re not exploring the Midnight Channel, your main character bonds with people in Inaba to create social links. These improve with time and give bonus experience points to your Persona. Therefore balancing your time between normal high school teenager and Persona hero is paramount.

The streets of Inaba are a welcome change for RPG players

The streets of Inaba are a welcome change for RPG players

The voice acting is of a particularly high quality, offering a wealth of sound to the huge amounts of dialogue in the game. What’s also noticeable is the inclusion of honorifics such as -senpai, -kun and -chan. It adds some surprising depth to the comedy and emotion in the scenes; as well as giving you a little language lesson. For such a small company, in the first ten hours Atlus have produced a miracle in translating Persona this good, so quickly. The script writing is spot on and appeals to the western audience without losing any of the original style or meaning. Other developers take note; you don’t need a huge budget to bring an unreleased franchise stateside.

The combat and exploration hasn’t been drastically changed, but it seems like many of the problems I had with P3 have been resolved. The mundane, boring Tartarus that you explored for nearly all of the game has been replaced by several smaller dungeons that relate to the victim you’re saving. For example, to rescue a strangely love stricken Yukiko my band of Persona wielders had to traipse through a medieval castle. It’s different at least?! You can choose to control all of your party’s characters too, which never become ill or tired like before.

Combat is traditional turn based, but at least has you controlling the entire party this time around...

Combat is traditional turn based, but at least has you controlling the entire party this time around...

Personal, ranting off the cuff thoughts? The main character has a god awful hair cut. I don’t think you can change it, but I’ve seen a Barber in the shopping district that I will continue to visit in the vain hope it will change. Also, one of the coolest and darkest parts of P3 was how you summoned a Persona. You took a gun and shot yourself in the freaking head. This time around though, the protagonists use trendy coloured glasses and cards. What is with Japan and card based games?! They’ve done it in Kingdom Hearts (Chain of Memories), Metal Gear Solid (Acid) and even Pokemon. I’m pretty sure they must have an unhealthy obsession about them over there. Oh, and Teddy may look cute, but after the billionth time of him saying “That’s one down Chie-chan!” I wanted to rip his head off. Is there anyway you can turn off JUST his speech?!

So far I am thoroughly impressed with Persona 4. The contemporary visuals and soundtrack (which is also free as a CD in the case) is a joy to play through. The age of the Playstation 2 may show through in a few places, but for £19.99 it seems like an absolute steal. Atlus boast that you can find 40+ hours here, with a second play through also encouraged; which is some serious time for your buck.

(P.S to players; doesn’t Nanako’s sad expression bring a tear to your eye when you have to go out and save the world?)

Persona 4: Free t-shirt!

In a previous post, I made a little video unpacking the PAL version of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. The Limited Edition t-shirt I was promised was missing though and at long last, it has finally been posted to me.  Stupidly, although I asked for a small or medium (i’m pretty short for my age) i got given a large.  Still, free merchandise never goes amiss and i’m sure I will find some use for it.

All wrapped up in cellophane

All wrapped up in cellophane

View from the front...

View from the front...

Now from, the back...

Now from the back...

It's only a tad large on me... ;)

It's only a tad large on me...

The transfer on the back is a little faded at the bottom, but that might be a legitimate design choice. If anyone else has this t-shirt, I would love to see pictures of other people wearing them! I plan on playing Persona 4 this summer and will be sure to write up some thoughts on it then.

The Death Of Arcades

What do the releases of Time Crisis 4, Street Fighter 4 and House of the Dead: Overkill all have in common? They’re not just elaborate sequels; all three were created and gained commercial success in the arcade. I personally have very fond memories of the traditional arcade, wasting far too much of my pocket money on trying to complete the original House of the Dead. In my local city, at least half a dozen of these dedicated gaming centres used to exist. However, now only a couple remain, tucked away as places of nostalgia. What are the reasons for this drastic change in gaming culture and has the arcade had its day?

Street Fighter 4 carries on the legacy of the classic arcade franchise

Street Fighter 4 carries on the legacy of the classic arcade franchise

It may seem obvious, but the increasing demand and quality of home consoles has been a major blow for the local arcade. When the Sega Genesis was released, they competed against their own arcade cabinets by improving upon the classics. Altered Beast, Space Harrier and Afterburner could now all be played at the comfort of your own home. Sure, the initial price was more than a token but it meant you could play it until you finally beat the game. This also outlined one of the major faults of arcade games. Developers designed them to be infuriatingly hard, often with cheap gimmicks so that you would repeatedly put money into them. That was business. Yet when you could finally play these in your own time, you discovered their faults and in essence; how poor some of them were. As games consoles grew in popularity people expected more from games. These included a storyline, immersive characters and the ability to save a game for later. Arcades could never offer the same kind of experiences in one day bursts.

One of the few features keeping arcades alive was the social scene. Especially with titles such as Street Fighter, the only way you could test your skills was to go down to your stomping ground; the arcade. The internet wasn’t around to look up every combo known to man, so when you discovered a new killer move there was only one way to brag about it. The distraught look on your opponent (who was quite often a complete stranger) when ‘K.O’ burst onto the screen simply couldn’t be replicated at home. Unfortunately, the Dreamcast took all of this away with online gameplay. Elaborate leader boards, tournaments and online statistics mean that you always know your skill level against the rest of the world. Sure, you may not be able to see them but the global village is well and truly here to stay.

Street Fighter 2 HD Turbo Remix was a huge success on Xbox Live Arcade

Street Fighter 2 HD Turbo Remix was a huge success on Xbox Live Arcade

However, I still believe that there are gaming experiences drawing people into the arcade. In the early noughties, Dancing Stage had hit the PlayStation in a big way. Every girl capable of moving their feet had a dance mat in their own home, trying to clear the next song or difficulty. Dancing Stage, or Dance Dance Revolution as it’s known in Japan was born in the arcade. Once people realised that the traditional cabinets had better sound quality, durable pads and a leader board system the home mats became obsolete. As soon as you got past medium difficulty on the PlayStation versions, the intensity of the songs would mean that the soft mats just flew all over the place. Although they are a minority, players that take Dance Dance Revolution seriously can still be found in your local arcade.

Light gun games have been successful on home consoles, but I would never say they’ve been huge. In 1998, Time Crisis 2 was praised for its two player co-operative modes and pedal cover system. To this day, I would say at least 50% of arcades still stock a Time Crisis 2 cabinet. Why? People are still playing it. The controls are simple, it’s fast and furious and the records are still being stored on its leader board. Without a heavy duty pedal and realistically sized weaponry, light gun games are incredibly difficult to replicate at home. Similarly, racing games that offer steering wheels and manual gear box simulation simply aren’t practical at home. You won’t find people actively going to the arcade for Sega Rally Championship, but it still offers a wealth of enjoyment that’s regularly by passers by.

Time Crisis still holds huge appeal in arcades

Time Crisis still holds huge appeal in arcades

Especially in the credit crunch, many arcades are finding it harder to stay in business. Consumers are choosing to stay at home and play more of the games they’ve paid full retail price for. So which arcades are still worth visiting? If you live in the UK, FunLand/ SegaWorld go straight in at the top of my recommendation list. You can find it in the middle of the Trocadero centre in London, easily seen by the large escalator at its entrance. The arcade has multiple floors, each one dedicated to a different kind of gaming. A deck for racing, a deck for fighting and even a deck for music rhythm games, offering Japanese imports such as Guitar Freaks. Bowling and dodgems have been crammed in there as well, so if you think you’ve exhausted the capital of England this is a great way to burn some hours.

None of this compares to Japan, perhaps the mother of arcades. There are hundreds you can choose from if you’re planning a visit there, but if you can only choose one, Taito Hey Akihabara is the first port of call. When big arcade developers like SNK talk about where they’ll be testing their new titles, you can bet your last Yen it’s here. Commercial success means that everything is spotless and a joy to walk around. You may have to wait for a turn on weekends, and the amount of couples can be a little daunting, but if you’re a fan of light gun games this is your Mecca. If you need a map, look here.

Akihabara, Japan is a haven for traditional arcades!

Akihabara, Japan is a haven for traditional arcades!

There are some great arcades in America, most of which can be found in tourist guides for your individual city. I could go into more detail but it’s easy to look these up in your own time.

Arcades may have lost to the evolution of home console gaming, but I still feel they have an important place in our culture’s nostalgia. If it’s a Pacman cabinet in the corner of a bar or a few enthusiasts still playing Street Fighter 2, our growing industry needs to remember where it all started. Viva le tokens.