The Future of Atlus

There’s some potential trouble on the horizon for us Atlus fans.  Atlus isn’t technically its own company; it is owned by a parent company called Index Corporation.  This isn’t even a gaming company, just some corporation that originally funded Atlus.  Now, the shoe is on the other foot.  Atlus is easily the most profitable (if not only profitable) part of Index, a fact that isn’t enough to save the company from potential bankruptcy.  Index is also apparently under investigation for money fraud on top of all the money they owe.  The potential of a dissolution of the company is very possible.

This could mean a variety of things for Atlus.  They may be sold off to some company, most likely a third-party publisher who would continue to fund them.  Atlus may not be the creators of the best-selling games out there, but they make a hell of an JRPG.  Their following is somewhat of a cult following, but there is enough of an audience there to support them for years to come.  The one issue here would be with who might end up buying Atlus.  I could see Ubisoft or maybe even Namco picking up the publisher and just letting them do whatever, probably netting a neat profit in a year or two.  Say that Nintendo picks them up instead, a not unlikely occurrence considering the slew of new RPGs Atlus keeps putting out on the 3DS.  Of course, this would automatically mean that all Atlus RPGs would immediately be locked to Nintendo platforms; certainly not the worst news in the world but potentially crushing to some fans who wish to play their games on other systems.  It is also possible that the company just folds.  This outcome is highly unlikely, as Atlus does constantly make a profit.  I’m sure someone would pick them up somehow along the way.

We will have to wait and see what this means for the future of Atlus.  I really enjoy the mature and creative RPGs they put out every year (although I want Persona 5 already!) as they are unlike anything else out there.  It would be a bummer to see their priorities shift due to financial troubles that aren’t even their own.

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Remember Me (PC) review

I love cyberpunk.  Seeing the ways that futuristic tech affects the real world is a fascinating subject that I feel not enough games take advantage of, especially with the fast-moving nature of technology today.  Therefore, whenever a game decides to give this style a try, I’m almost immediately on board.  This was definitely the case with Remember Me.  My first exposure to it instantly put it on my radar, particularly because of its striking visual style and female protagonist.  That style still shines through in the final product, but several quirks and rough edges make Remember Me a bit tricky for me to review.

In Remember Me, society has invented a new addictive pastime: editing or removing the memories in our heads.  Imagine a world where you can share a favorite memory with a loved one or delete a particularly bad memory from your head.  Thanks to your Sensen, a mental implant that helps regulate these activities (along with a variety of other futuristic stuff, like receiving calls and projecting information into the environment), doing so is very simple.  Everything isn’t perfect though; this invention has created a fractured society where no one wants to remember their history and where the buzz of a new memory is just as addictive as any drug.

In this world, you take control of Nilin, a Memory Hunter on a particularly bad day.  As the game begins, she has been captured and wiped of nearly all of her memories due to her involvement in a rogue group called the Errorists.  A mysterious voice named Edge manages to help her to escape the facility she is trapped in, but her memories remain lost.  The remainder of the story has you taking Nilin through a series of tasks to take down the group behind it all and allow her to recover those memories she has lost.  The story itself is pretty by-the-numbers and predictable, but I absolutely loved the premise here.  I could easily imagine a future where humans are willing to delete the worst parts of their memories, even though the repercussions of such an action could be great for the course of human history.  It’s a really neat idea, one that deserved a more engaging story to go with it.  Even still, the fascinating style of the world engaged me from beginning to end, even though the characters didn’t really grab me.

The best parts of the story are the Memory Remix sequences, and they are easily some of the coolest things I’ve seen in a video game this generation.  Nilin has the ability to interface with a person’s Sensen and change the events of that person’s memory, essentially making them think something happened even though it didn’t play out that way in reality.  The way you do this in the game is by rewinding and fast-forwarding (manually by rotating the stick–so cool!) and looking for memory glitches you can alter the way the events play out in that person’s memory in order to make them see something or someone in a different light.  These moments have a cool Matrix-esque style and were probably difficult as hell for the team to code, since you can essentially scrub through them in real-time.  The final Remix is the coolest of all, in a way I can’t really explain without ruining it.  Trust me, these segments are worth playing the game for alone.

At its core, Remember Me is a character action game most resembling one of the recent Batman games from Rocksteady (but without the counters).  Tapping out strings of punches and kicks will make Nilin use combos on the various enemies in the game.  Where this game differentiates itself is in the Combo Lab.  By slotting passive abilities called Pressens into your four preset combos, you can add effects like health regen and faster cooldowns for the special combat abilities you unlock to the various hits.  The farther into the combo an effect is added, the more powerful that effect is.  It’s a fantastic idea that gives a great deal of control to the player on how they would like to fight.  Unfortunately, the combat is otherwise very rough around the edges.  If you’ve played Batman, you know how fluid and visceral that combat feels.  Every hit feels like it really hurts.  Remember Me’s fisticuffs are sluggish and unresponsive by comparison.  It often feels like the game didn’t do what I wanted to do when I was inputting buttons, by aiming my hits at the wrong guy or fumbling through combos I felt I nailed.  This iffy combat is also paired with a terrible camera that gets stuck on just about everything, which can make certain segments particularly rough.  All in all, I think the combat system shows a lot of promise; it just lacked the necessary polish.

The whole game really has this roughness around the edges.  Several of the animations are ridiculous to the point of seeming broken.  The cutscenes are often jerky or choppy and look pretty bad for being rendered out-of-engine.  Probably worst of all is the voice acting.  I can’t think of a single character in the game that didn’t sound terrible at least part of the time.  All of this makes me think that the game came out a little earlier than the team would have liked it to, missing out on those last few months of polish.  These issues are enough to make Remember Me a bit harder to recommend; at the very least, I would feel the need to warn potential players about these issues, even though I still think the game is worth playing for other reasons.

As I mentioned above, several of the Remember Me’s graphical elements are a bit rough.  The artstyle itself, however, is top-notch.  Neo-Paris is a beautifully rendered cyberpunk city, mixing the older stylings  of Paris’ more historic areas with plenty of large flatscreens, robot maids running to and fro, and computer terminals at every corner.  I also really liked the way the designers interpreted Nilin’s Sensen would project UI elements into the world.  Walking up to a cafe, for example, will list their specials and prices as a floating text book over its front.   It all looks so sharp and crisp that I wish I could install a Sensen just to see all this stuff in real-time.  I also want to note Nilin’s character design for its style.  I think it is a such a great mix of femininity and style, without being overtly sexualized, that is rarely balanced so well in a video game.  For some reason, I also really like her hair.

I’m not really a big music guy when it comes to games.  Therefore, when a game’s soundtrack really jumps out at me, I take notice.  Remember Me’s score is one of those soundtracks that managed to grab me.  It is a genius blend of grand orchestrated tracks mixed with racing techno and dubstep sounds that I just loved listening to.  The battle track, in particular, is one of my favorite game tracks in years; the way it dynamically flows with the fighting is fantastic.  My one gripe is that many of the swelling music moments are just a little too epic and grand, almost as if trying to rub it in my face.  It’s a small nitpick, one I don’t really think it hurts the brilliance of the soundtrack in any way.  I plan to buy it as soon as I can.

I can’t stress enough that how much I like Remember Me is heavily influenced by the style and concept of the game.  Few games are visually appealing to my sensibilities in such a way that I’m willing to slightly overlook some issues.  I won’t say that Remember Me isn’t a rough game in areas.  The combat is rough and occasionally frustrating, but I feel the ideas there really have some potential for another game.  The other issues, particularly the lack of polish across the board, are harder to overlook, but I still don’t feel like they drag down one of the best cyberpunk worlds I’ve ever experienced.  My advice to potential buyers is to consider how important great gameplay is to your experience.  For those of you who don’t care about a poor playing game as long as it does something special elsewhere, I advise you to give Remember Me a try.  It is a very unique visual experience that no game I know of comes close to realizing.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (Vita) review

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors was one of my favorite games on the original DS.  It was unlike anything I had ever played before it and one of my first exposures to a visual novel game.  It seemed boring and strange at first but quickly became next to impossible to put down.  The puzzle rooms were fun to solve, if not maybe a bit repetitive, and the story was fascinating, keeping me hooked until the final couple hours of mind-blowing reveals.  The sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward takes all the elements that made the first game great and strips out several of the hassles of the format to create a much more enjoyable experience overall.  Unfortunately, the story beats don’t pack quite the same punch as the original’s, and this is what hurts the game overall.

The story of Zero Escape is very closely tied to the events of 999, however untrue that may seem at first.  I can’t really go into any detail of how the two are tied together without massive spoilers for both games, so instead let’s just talk about the basic premise.  You again play a person trapped in the Nonary Game (although not the same Nonary Game), where each of its nine members must solve puzzles and work together in order to open a certain door to escape.  The biggest difference between 999 and Zero Escape is a new twist called the Ambidex Game.  Players are often forced to face each other and vote to either ally or betray the other.  Depending on who votes which way, the points you accumulate for yourself go up or down, with betrayals having the potential to net bigger point gains at the risk of pissing the others off.  If someone reaches nine points, he or she can leave at any time–and leave everyone else behind if they so choose.

These events unfold in much the same way that they did in 999.  Through talking to the other players in the Nonary Game and reading various pieces of literature you find as you solve puzzle rooms, you learn information that may seem irrelevant at the time but becomes more important as the pieces fall into place.  The way this worked in 999 was genius and allowed for some particularly jaw-dropping reveals.  The “oh, shit” moments still occur in Zero Escape, but these reveals didn’t feel as revelatory as they did in the original.  Maybe it’s because the first game set up so many expectations for the craziness of this game’s world but very few of the reveals surprised me or felt exciting.  Zero Escape also ends in such a way that it sets up a sequel very directly, making it feel less complete than 999, which ended in much more complete way.  This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t exciting and fun to watch play out—it just means that it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations, at least the ones that I had, from 999.

Easily the biggest, and best, change from 999 to Zero Escape is the structure of the various paths you can take.  The first game required players to play through the entire game again from the beginning to in order to get the different endings by picking different choices throughout the game.  Zero Escape instead has a very useful flowchart that demonstrates exactly what you’ve seen and what you haven’t, filling out as you see events unfold.  Even better is that you can jump to any past point on the flowchart at any time.  This makes it extremely easy to go down the various paths to see the different endings.  This is a good thing, since there are many more endings this time around (18 paths in all).  The only way you can understand the whole story is to see all of these endings, good or bad, and progress to the endgame where the final bits come into focus.

The puzzle rooms also return from 999, and they are much better overall in Zero Escape.  They are also much more complicated than before.  The puzzle variety is pretty diverse, with some based on solving simple logic puzzles and others based on moving pieces or blocks around in particular ways.  There is such a great variety that I’ll guarantee you will find a puzzle that stumps you in particular.  For me, it was any of the sliding block puzzles, as I’m terrible at those.  I had a great time puzzling out the various rooms, spending about thirty minutes to an hour in each to fit all the pieces together and escape.  Each room also features a bonus puzzle to solve that gives additional files containing extra information about the story of the game.  Be warned that some of these files could slightly spoil certain story elements (although I found and read them all immediately and never thought it impacted my enjoyment in any way), so it may be best to wait until finishing the game to read them.

I played Zero Escape on the Vita, which unfortunately made the whole touch thing a bit strange at times.  Using the Vita for a predominantly touch-based game like this works okay most of the time (you can also use the buttons and stick, although they don’t work as quickly as the touch controls), but it felt a little strange when compared to using the DS’s stylus for 999.  Sometimes my finger wasn’t precise enough to hit what I was aiming for, which made some parts frustrating.  There is also a note-taking function now built into the game itself that never worked well with my finger; written words or passwords often looked so illegible that I just used a pen and paper instead, negating the use of the feature entirely.  These issues aren’t enough of a problem to not play the game on a Vita, particularly because the game never requires you to anything with great speed, but it can get a little irritating.

The visuals have gotten a pretty substantial overhaul, thanks to the jump in handheld generation.  On the Vita, everything looks absolutely sharp and well-defined, even though it didn’t really need to be.  I really like the variety in the character design, although there are again some questionable outfits choices such as Alice’s (how does that top even work?) and Clover’s (what is she, a cavegirl?).  The music is very reminiscent of the original game; so much so that I could easily believe that they were the same soundtracks if I didn’t know any better.  It works well when playing the game but isn’t really something I would bother to listen to outside of the game.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward was a very enjoyable 30-hour experience (yes, it took that long!).  Its biggest issue was that I had all these expectations for the story from 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and, while it managed to meet some of them, it just introduced more questions than answers by the end.  The ending makes me excited for another game in one of my new favorite series, but I really would have liked a few more answers right now and an ending that didn’t feel so much like a sequel cop-out.  Still, if you enjoyed the first game as much as I did, Zero Escape is more of that unique experience.  For those of you who haven’t played either, I urge you to give this one a try (I do recommend playing the first one before this though).  I won’t lie–there’s a LOT of reading to be done, more so than any amount of gameplay.  The experience that you get out of it by the end is quite unique, however, and worth seeing for fans of interesting stories and settings.

Why video game stories suck

Story plays an interesting role in today’s video games.  For some, it is a completely non-essential factor in their enjoyment of a game: gameplay is king and nothing but a fun-to-play game will satisfy them.  Others, myself included, are more willing to accept some bad gameplay or poor production values if the story being told is intriguing or interesting enough.  An example of this that comes to mind is Singularity.  Gameplay-wise, it was yet another first-person shooter with somewhat interesting mechanics.  The story elements, particularly the usage of time travel, intrigued me enough to play through it when I otherwise probably would have avoided it.

More often than not, however, a game is not story-focused at all.  The focus is instead usually given to the gameplay elements, which can often lead to the story being irrelevant or boring.  Games are a unique form of entertainment for this reason, the way that the gameplay or the story may be favored over the other during development.  No other form of media needs to both play well and tell a good story in order to be complete.  This, I feel, is the reason why many game stories are absolutely terrible–or at least completely forgettable.

Stories seem to be one of the first things to suffer when a game changes during development.  I’ve played several games where it seems like the story was planned early on and then promptly forgotten about.  Levels were cut or features were changed in such a way that the story no longer makes sense, seeming to contradict itself or lose its meaning.  Bioshock Infinite is probably the best recent example of this.  The whole middle part of the game with Daisy Fitzroy and jumping between timelines jars with the rest of the story.  It almost feels like you slip into another game for three or four hours before finding the plot again after the zeppelin crashes.  I think this was directly related to the ways that Infinite changed in development; this section of the game was added or other parts were cut, giving the story its uneven feeling.

A variety of factors could influence a story in this way: budgetary cuts, approaching deadlines, or padding of length.  Too often, the story seems to fall to the wayside during game development, becoming neglected by the development team in favor of the gameplay or the multiplayer or any variety of other factors.  Not every game falls into these traps, of course, but it feels like quite a few of them do.  I don’t really want to place so much of the blame on the developers, but they are the ones responsible for the game’s well-being.  Game development is a complex machine, requiring so many different elements to work perfectly together in order to succeed.  I can’t imagine the difficulty of cranking out a complete video game in just a couple of years, but I still don’t think this earns developers a pass.  In order for this medium to be treated more seriously, more thought and care needs to be given to the story during all stages of developments.

Of course, not all the blame is on the developers.  Another concern is the popularity of certain genres.  How many shooters have there been in the last generation of consoles?  It’s hard to blame developers for this trend too–these games sell extremely well and have managed to maintain (at least average consumer) interest for all these years.  The problem is that shooters are limited in the stories they can tell.  As an example, how can the protagonist of your average shooter game be anything other than a sociopath, with the numbers of dead bodies lying at his or her feet by the end?  So many shooter stories are the same because there is only so much developers can do with characters in those situations.  The intense industry focus on shooters hampers the choices developers have for story creation.  They could always make an RPG or something more unique, but it can be very hard to find publishers that are willing to fund something even remotely different with the costs of development now.  Hell, we still live in an age where a woman protagonist (or even one on the cover art) is contested by publishers, due to market research suggesting that these games won’t sell (even though many of us demand them).  Without more freedom to expand into other genres, stories are inevitably going to be more limited in scope.

We always seem to wonder why video game stories are so often terrible.  If we really think about it, the reasons are quite apparent.  Story isn’t what sells games today–obviously, the gameplay does.  Unfortunately, this usually means that any development decisions are going to favor gameplay over story.  Also, the iron grip of publishers greatly limits the ability of a storyteller to tell the story they want to tell, due to required gameplay concepts or genre choice constantly being at odds with the stories these developers want to tell.  The solution isn’t to hire screenwriters and novelists that have won awards to write game stories because the problem isn’t in the writing itself.  It’s in the refusal to allow the story to be what it needs to be at any cost.