Tearaway (PS Vita): Realizing a system’s potential

From the moment I first saw Tearaway, I knew I had to play it. From the makers of the LittleBigPlanet series, it looks like one of those Sherwin-Williams commercials, which are among the most creative and beautiful ads on TV:

I just started it this week, and at about 25%, I’m loving it so far. It’s a really neat game that playfully breaks down the “fourth wall” between player and game.  It takes advantage of the Vita’s unique features, most notably the rear touch pad, and within minutes makes you wonder how you went so long without that functionality. Unlike Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the implementation feels 100% natural instead of coming across as a tacked-on gimmick.

2014-05-03-202142The game itself is a joy to behold. Media Molecule has created a convincing world made up entirely of construction paper, with those satisfyingly familiar colors, textures, and sounds that will immediately take you back to elementary school. The only thing missing is some Elmer’s glue. I find that I’m stopping pretty often throughout each level to look around in first-person camera mode, appreciating the environments and animation.

Customization plays a significant part in Tearaway, not just in the way things look, but how they are used to solve puzzles as well. The main collectible and form of currency in the game is paper confetti, which can be used to buy all sorts of different Decorations. It’s fun, and there are a ton of them. You can also create your own items, which can be as detailed or as crude as you want them to be. Real papercraft models found in-game can be printed out and put together in real life, further blurring the line between pixels and reality.

2014-05-03-172822Anyway, I’m really digging this game, and I can’t wait to get further into it. It keeps throwing new things at you, and it has this wonderful balance of exploration and item collecting. Its cheeky sense of humor is great, and perhaps most importantly for the Vita itself, Tearaway is a very high-quality exclusive that can’t be played anywhere else.


Progress Report: Persona 4 Golden and Social Links

Ever since starting over on Very Easy, I’ve been flying through this game. I’m about 45 hours in, and it feels like I’m already heading into its final act. The funny thing is, I really do prefer playing it this way, even though it doesn’t provide much of a challenge. You get more money than you can spend, and most of your characters will be hitting level 99 by November. Additionally, if your party gets wiped out in battle, you can just continue from where you left off with full health and magic, making almost all recovery skills and items unnecessary.

So, why do I think this is fun? It’s because P4G is at its best when you’re not in dungeons. I mean, the dungeons here are good, and they’re more varied than Tartarus in Persona 3, but I still find them repetitive, especially if you go back for the harder bosses and the numerous fetch quests.

I’m definitely more in my element with the Social Link system, which fleshes out the stories between the main protagonist, his friends, and his family. I remember falling in love with this aspect of Japanese simulation games on the Sega Saturn when I played Sakura Taisen back in 1996. Its grid-based strategy parts were fun, but the interactions with the other characters was what made it a classic for me. And what an intro, right?

The Social Links in Persona 3 were excellent, and they’re great here as well. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters that you can build Social Links with, and even at this late point in the game, I’m gaining and working on new ones. This keeps things pretty fresh and your options open, especially if you’re like me and clear out dungeons right away, giving yourself weeks of free time in the game.

The scenario writers have done a really nice job not only making the main character story arcs interesting and meaningful, but giving the supporting cast three dimensions as well. There are times where I will find myself skipping over opportunities to advance my party member links in order to see where the story will go for people out on the fringes. Their struggles and personalities are warm, honest, and emotionally rewarding.

As I head towards P4G‘s finale, I’m already thinking about the links I will not have maxed out, the quests left undone, and trophies uncollected. Yes, there’s always New Game+, but a part of me wishes I could see everything in one shot.


Enjoying Japan in Persona 4 Golden

While dungeon crawling is an essential part of P4G, the things I’ve liked the most have been the events and activities that happen outside the TV World in its small, fictional town of Inaba.

My ancestors are from Japan, but the last generation of my family who lived there was that of my great-grandparents. Both my grandparents and parents were born and raised in Hawaii, and me in California. Culturally, traditional Japanese wasn’t a big part of my upbringing, and what remained was filtered through the blended lens of Hawaiian culture. I can make you a mean spam musubi, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about cooking a chawanmushi!

2014-04-24-161250Back in high school, two things happened: First, while taking an art history class, we learned about Milan Cathedral in Italy. I remember getting goosebumps because of its striking beauty, and my emotions were stirred imagining the generations it took to complete. It gave me a new appreciation for history itself, and architecture in particular.

Second, I got into manga and anime, with Akira being one of the first major influences on me. I love the manga, and to this day, it remains one of the best, with artistic detail that boggles the mind. However, when I finally saw the movie, even though it was a poor VHS copy and I barely understood a thing, it changed my life. It made me not only want to learn more about Japan and its history, but it influenced my art, interests, and my desire to go there someday.

2014-04-24-150354I was fortunate enough to visit Japan several times later in life, which were all amazing experiences. As a result, I found myself drawn to games that treat Japan and its everyday life as essential components to their stories. They take me back to those trips, rekindling old memories.

In that sense, P4G is one of the best.

It really captures the small town/big city dichotomy well, with characters oftentimes wanting to evolve, but worried about losing their historical identity and the simplicity of rural life. The distinctive locations reflect this, and the date-specific events that break up the normal day-to-day exploration and Social Link building are fun, giving great insight into Japanese culture.

I’m at my happiest in P4G just walking around town, looking at the small details of the old buildings, their interiors, traditional clothing designs, or taking a moment to appreciate the satisfying sound of a sliding wood door closing.

These elements truly make the outside world of P4G a convincing and comfortable one. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to live there and give the Mega Beef Bowl Challenge a shot!


Persona 4 Golden on Very Easy

I have a general rule that I will always play a game on its default difficulty first (if a choice is offered). It’s been my experience that when games are designed and tested, Normal is the one that’s been tweaked, balanced, and played the most.

In today’s terms, Normal usually skews a little easier, which is fine, because if I really enjoy a game, I’ll go back and give the harder difficulties a whirl. If there are additional trophies or achievements to be acquired, that adds a nice incentive. The Last of Us is a great example of a game I was happy to play through multiple times.

Last week, however, after having been destroyed by one of P4G’s bosses 5 times in a row (you can read about that here), I ultimately decided to throw in the towel and start over. I was no longer having fun. That was 40 hours down the drain, which stung a little, but I’m finding that it’s been a lot more fun and eye-opening on the Very Easy setting.

One thing I hate is missing out on things in games, and I knew that I’d missed a lot on my Normal playthrough. I decided to use a guide this time to track Social Links, Quests, date-specific events, and other activities, and at only around mid-May, it’s shocking how much I’ve overlooked. I know that the game is designed so that it’s impossible to see everything on a single playthrough, but even then, this approach has been valuable in making me rethink how I spend each day in Inaba.

Something else I tried for the first time is P4G’s SOS system, which is an online component allowing you to send out requests for help in dungeons and provide aid to others in need. I’m not sure why I never tried this until now, but I’m finding it to be a fun way to interact with other players.

I don’t like that sending out an SOS request takes as long as it does, but other than that, getting the minor HP/SP bump in battle from other players makes me smile. Even though the game has been out since November of 2012, I’ve been encouraged to see almost all of my requests fulfilled. Other players in the TV World have proven to be a generous group, so if you are out there right now, then thank you for your help!

Effort-reward balance on Very Easy has been the best part. It doesn’t necessarily mean less effort, since the game still takes a lot of time, smart decision-making, good planning, and organization to get the most out of it. What it does mean, though, is you’ll get to see your characters and Personas grow and evolve quickly.

It’s not uncommon to see one or more level advancements after a battle or two, and taking out Wealth Hands (which are the equivalent of Dragon Quest’s Metal Slime family) require less time and provide amazing returns. This new pace provides a steady stream of positive feedback to the player, which I just love.

It might not be my proudest moment as a gamer, but at this point in my life, I’m perfectly OK with that.


I’m getting too old for this…

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.

Shadow MitsuoSo I’ve been playing Persona 4 Portable (P4G) this week, and am in the Void Quest dungeon. Up to this point, the game hasn’t been all that difficult, and actually, most mob battles are too easy since you can gain advantage every time and Rise will tell you the weaknesses of most enemies. As a result, they rarely get a chance to take their turn.

But this guy, Shadow Mitsuo, is a different story. The difficulty spike almost seems like a mistake. I’ve now been wiped out by him 5 times using different party setups, and each of those battles has lasted approximately 30-60 minutes. Looking online yields a couple suggestions: Grind more or fuse the Black Frost Persona. Well, grinding’s out since it’s terrible here. Battles aren’t fast and painless like they are in Bravely Default or Dragon Quest. As for fusing Black Frost, I don’t have the money to buy back the 5 Personas required for this, so that brings me back to grinding, or getting lucky with Shuffle Time. Talk about a lose-lose situation.

I don’t mind difficult games, and in fact, some of the hardest games I’ve ever played rank among my favorites. I did everything in Super Meat Boy, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Rayman Origins, Super Hexagon, and others. The thing is, a game needs to be fun. This? It makes me want to throw my Vita out the window.

p4g_difficultyAs the great Bill Cosby once said about getting older, “After a while, you learn what you want to burn your energy on.” That’s so true when it comes to games. If it ceases being fun, you either have to find a way to make it enjoyable again or move on. The thing is, I’m not ready to leave. I really like the game’s story, characters, world, and music, and want to see it through to its end.

Being close to 40 hours in, do I put in the work to get my party battle-ready, or just start over on Very Easy to focus on the more personal simulation aspects of the game?

A tough decision draws near. Command?


Progress Report: Persona 4 Golden

I loved Persona 3 Portable (P3P) on the PSP. It was my first Persona game, and its great mix of dungeon crawling and traditional Japanese simulation gameplay was a breath of fresh air. I also really enjoyed the exceptional art style and music, making me an instant fan of Shigenori Soejima and Shoji Meguro. It remains one of my favorite RPGs.

I finished P3P in early 2012. By that time, Persona 4 Golden (P4G) had already been announced for the Vita. Playing P3P on the PSP was such a positive experience that I decided to wait and play its follow-up on the Vita. Thanks to my thoughtful wife, I received both the system and game on Christmas Day 2013. I tore in and got started immediately.

Nearly 4 months later, I’m still playing it. According to one of the FAQs I looked through today, I’m nearing its halfway point, having put in about 37 hours so far. Like P3P, this is a long game. I put about 80 hours into that one, and I’m assuming I’ll be putting in at least that many hours into this.

What do I think of it? I’m enjoying it, but unlike P3P, I wouldn’t say I’m loving it. I like the town of Inaba and the more intimate feel of the storyline, but I preferred P3P’s SEES/Dark Hour narrative better. P4G has a more relaxed and upbeat atmosphere, but it could be that general lack of urgency that’s translating into me going through it at a snail’s pace.

The characters are another area where I feel P3P excelled, although I’m still at the point where my key social links are only around 7 out of 10, so my opinion could change as things progress and those relationships grow. I’ll comment more on this in my final review.

I really like that I am so at home in P4G, though. Everything feels the same as it did in its predecessor, just bigger and more varied. It’s immediately comfortable. Like P3P, the art and soundtrack are of the highest quality, and the graphics pop so vibrantly from the Vita’s terrific screen. Games likes these fuel my opinion that RPGs are best consumed in portable form.