Thursday, August 19, 2010

Review // Persona 3: FES

I'm not usually a fan of RPGs without Mario or Earthbound somewhere in the title, but halfway into Giant Bomb's Persona 4 Endurance Run, I couldn't resist picking up Persona 3: FES for an Endurance Run of my own. After thoroughly enjoying the main storyline, I thought Persona 3 could do no wrong. Then I played the bonus campaign.

The Journey Is All That Matters

Persona 3: FES's main storyline, The Journey, feels a lot like Pokémon for adults. It's a darker, more grounded experience that replicates the life of a teenager who has to balance saving the world with being a regular guy. He goes to school, studies, hangs out with friends, goes on dates, and oh yeah, at midnight, he explores a giant tower full of monsters called Shadows.

Other RPGs lose me because they all seem so generic and serious. It's always the same fantasy tropes with the same character archetypes and serious dialogue and nothing I can relate to personally. The Journey is nothing like that. I often went several play sessions without ever seeing a fight and spent the entire time social linking with friends and going to class and, well, just living.

Thankfully, battling in this game is pretty fun too. Like Pokémon, it's all about exploiting weaknesses and finding the right creature for the job. Where it takes a step beyond Pokémon is by letting you fuse new creatures, called Personas, out of the ones you already have. It's confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it all, it's actually really addicting.

The Journey was a fantastic experience, full of laughs and real emotional connection to characters I spent an absurd amount of time with. It easily made it onto my short list of favorite RPGs and I can definitely recommend it to anyone.

Some Questions Are Better Left Unanswered

Persona 3: FES's bonus campaign, The Answer, on the other hand, I wouldn't recommend to anyone, but especially those who really enjoyed The Journey. The Answer caught me totally off guard by completely reversing everything I loved about The Journey: The storyline is weak, forced, and always serious. You never social link or go to class or even leave the room you're stuck in, and every moment is spent either in battle or preparing to be in battle.

Even the characters don't seem to want to be back, all grumbling and griping and saying, "Can we just get this over with?" It reminded me of Heart of Darkness when, about 10 pages in, characters in the novel are already falling asleep listening to the story. I set the book down at the point. I should've done the same here.

Perhaps the most infuriating thing about The Answer isn't the structure, but the awful writing. The Journey was at its best when it was light-hearted fun, but here, it's the same emotional, clichéd garbage that ruins most RPGs. By the end of it, I was muttering things to myself like, "If I have to hear one more line that only consists of one character saying another character's name, I am going to snap the fucking disc in half."

The Answer was so unbearable that I could only play it while keeping the volume down and listening to podcasts. So yeah, you should absolutely buy Persona 3: FES, but do not be tempted by The Answer. The Journey is so much better.

Persona 3: FES / $39.99 / PS2

Monday, August 9, 2010

Review // Split/Second

I can't tell you how many times I played the Split/Second demo, racing the same track over and over, always with a stupid grin on my face. This is a game I was excited for. But when I finally started playing, and the deeper I got into it, the more it felt like a bad JRPG, and the less I wanted to keep going.

You Got Your Level Grinding In My Racing Game

Split/Second is a game that relies a little too heavily on first impressions. At first glance, it's a phenomenally gorgeous racer with seemingly endless potential for white-knuckled, unpredictable racing. A few hours into the full game, though, revealed a racer where frustration pervades every aspect of the experience, from the race progression to the online play to the actual racing.

Unlocking new "episodes" and cars is as simple as racing the events you already have, with a refreshingly forgiving twist: Even placing last in a race will net you a few points. The problem is that the cars I kept unlocking were always slower than anything I was up against, and sometimes worse than the cars I already had, forcing me to race harder just to stay out of last place.

I felt like I was playing a bad JRPG and was too low level for the current area. I'd unlock a new car and events, then watch AI opponents zip right past me in my fancy new car and end up placing somewhere close to last. I had to go back through old races and grind out enough points to unlock a car with better stats that could at least compete in new events.

Even then, there's a linear progression to the car unlocks, so I still found myself occasionally working to unlock cars I just didn't want. There is no event type in Split/Second that doesn't favor speed and drift above all else, so heavy trucks and cars without fast acceleration are completely useless, no matter what the loading screen tips would have you believe.

When Speed Is Not Enough, Indeed

If Split/Second was a strong enough racer, I probably wouldn't mind grinding to get a better car, but it has a lot of problems. Here are some real notes I made while playing:

  • This track? Again? Really?
  • The respawn system is really inconsistent. In the same race, I went from 3rd to 1st after a crash, then 1st to 8th.
  • Ugh, I hate rubberbanding. These cars keep catching up no matter how well I drive.
  • Wow. They wrench control from me to show how I took down an opponent, then point me at a wall or something just before giving me control again. This keeps happening.
  • I can't remember the last time I yelled "bullshit!" at a game this much.
  • The online is stupidly unbalanced. Everybody is using the exact same car. A car significantly faster than anything I have.

I expected the online play to be Split/Second's saving grace, but it might actually be worse than the single-player. You can only use the cars you've unlocked from the single-player campaign, so there's no point even trying the online play until you've beaten the game since everybody you'll meet already has. The matchmaking does nothing to alleviate this problem, pitting me in my first online match against guys who had already maxed out the online ranking system.

In my first few matches, I watched everyone rocket past me in the first 5 seconds and never saw them again. I decided to stop playing online until I beat the campaign. When I came back, I still didn't quite have the insane car everyone else had, but at least I wasn't coming in last place every time anymore. However, with Split/Second's ranking system, you can earn a level in one race only to have it taken right back after your next race. It felt impossible to rank up. It felt like I was wasting my time.

I had really been looking forward to Split/Second, but it let me down at every turn. If the developer can learn from the mistakes of this game and make the sequel that much better though, I'm definitely on board.

Split/Second / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360