Finally! A High School, Dating Sim/Dungeon Crawling, Demon Fighting Game For The Rest Of Us

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

Once again, it’s that time of the year. For… parties of course! This past Saturday was a double header: first up was Dave Roman and Raina’s annual holiday specials spectacular, where everyone from the Comics Bakery camp get together to sift through Dave’s gigantic, filled to the brim box of both classic and crappy Xmas cartoons. Last year’s highlight was the mind-blowingly insane Cabbage Patch Kids Xmas cavalcade, and this year’s was the equally mind-blowingly inane My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas. What started out as a joke amongst the gang, that the exploits of these excessively dim-witted ponies actually predate human civilization, turned out to be somewhat fact, since by the end of the show it’s revealed that they were the source of one of Christmas’ most time-y traditions.

So why do we hang stockings by the chimney with care Virginia? Well, get a load of this nonsense: there once was an extremely clumsy and stupid pony named Minty, named as such because of the tattoo of hard candy on her ass, which is how one tells her kind apart. And aside from being intensely air-headed (maybe because she’s a horse, or a girl, or both), Minty was also anal retentive; when she noticed that the gigantic candy cane that’s placed on top of the gigantic Christmas tree in the middle of her town that’s supposed to be a beacon to help Santa find his way there was supposedly crooked, Minty made a foolish attempt at straightening it out, with the end result being it falling to the ground, shattering into millions of little pieces. Mortified by the possibility of Santa being a no-show a result, Minty decided to break into everyone home later that evening to pass along random socks from her vast collection, since she had a foot fetish I guess. Long story short, a valuable lesson is learned at all, but at no point is there an evil glue maker involved in the plot, which was most unfortunate. Yes, the very best bad holiday cartoons are ones that they feel like parodies that you see for two or three minutes on some other show, in which this case is the ultimate demeaning half hour commercial for little girls, but this one is completely for reals.

Though Father Christmas also bears mentioning, which shows what Santa does with his time the rest of the year, and that’s basically living in Vegas, eating like a pig, lounging by the pool, and presumably having sex with whores the entire time (since it’s somewhat eluded that Mrs. Claus is either dead or has walked out on the guy). This btw was one of the good ones! Anyway, immediately afterwards was a special Christmas themed Horror Night with the Sweet Rot crew. I unfortunately missed the first feature, The Gingerdead Man, starring Gary Busey, though I did arrive just in time for Santa’s Slay, starring wrestler Bill Goldberg as an evil, psychotic Santa Claus…

The story here is a tad bit more plausible than A Very Minty Christmas; much like how Jesus Christ was the result of an immaculate conception, so was Santa Claus, but his dad was Satan himself. One day, about one thousand years ago to be exact, an angel challenged the vile and reprehensible St. Nick to a game of curling (yes, Canada’s national pastime) and wins, with the stipulation being that Santa had to act all nice for the next 1,000 years, by giving toys to children and all that jazz. Well, his sentence is finally up and its time to extract some revenge on the angel, who now lives in a place called Hell Township, posing as the local crazy old guy. The primary “hero” of the flick is the angel/crazy old guy’s grandson, who naturally is the biggest, most annoying pussy in the world, whom you’re aching to see get his spinal cord ripped out by the big red man himself, but which unfortunately doesn’t happen. Though the real star of the show is of course Santa, as he ruthlessly obliterates every person that crosses his path, whether it be him shoving a menorah down the throat of the local Jewish deli owner, or electrocuting a bunch of strippers all at once. He also lights the Nanny, aka Fran Drescher on fire in the opening of the film, plus the flash back to the game of curling is presented in Rankin/Bass style, meaning stop motion puppetry, so overall there’s plenty to really like about this flick!

And speaking of wrestlers, Rob and I finally caught The Wrestler this past Monday. Some folks know this already, or have simply figured it out on their own, that I’m quite the fan of profession wrestling. Yet I keep it on the down low. Maybe it’s because in this day and age, where it’s completely socially acceptable to obsess over books about British kids that go to wizarding school, along with its associated movies, as well as jamming on a video game controller shaped like a guitar, in broad daylight no less, telling people that you also like to see sweaty dudes fake hit each other is still considered “not cool” or “totally gay”. You know, I’ve always been shocked by how every comic book fanatic out there isn’t also a wrestling nerd, given the strong parallels between the two worlds. So I’ve dying for the one thing to present the subject matter in some approachable or “respected” format, like a movie, so these folks can finally take it all in. Though on the flip-side, I knew well in advance that The Wrestler had gotten some really strong buzz, which was great and all, but like most dedicated fans of anything, when one hears of their favorite thing being portrayed for an outside audience, one has to wonder if it’ll be at all true to the real thing.

Well, in this case, it most certainly is. Holy sh*t did they ever get EVERYTHING right. The Wrestler is easily the most accurate portrayal of the world of wrestling ever produced for the big screen, and is right up there with Beyond The Mat, which was a documentary (still HIGHLY recommended btw). Though here’s the funny thing: of all the movies Aronofsky has helmed thus far, this one is also easily his most upbeat and least depressing of the bunch. Which is quite the contrast to what many are saying, but I believe it’s because I’m so familiar with the subject matter, so hardly any of it was of real shock. The film tells the tale of one Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a former superstar of the world of wrestling circa the 80s who today is just another broken old-timer that does indie shows on the weekends. After suffering a near fatal heart attack, he has to give it all up and get a crappy day job at the local deli, which naturally deepens his personal hell. In order to find some semblance of meaning to his existence, Randy tries to start a real relationship with a stripper that he’s fallen in love with, as well mend the broken one between himself and his estranged daughter, who holds much resentment towards her old man, who was never there when she was growing up, because he was too absorbed in the world of wrestling. Which is a situation that plays itself out in the real world all too many times. But it’s all the smaller things that the film truly excels at, the finder details, like the look at the locker room before a show, where all the wrestlers are gathering, trying to figure out their match for the night. To be honest, Randy, and the world he lives in, so no different than a few washed up actors, comics, and musicians that I’ve come across in my time. And while I absolutely loathe the Oscars at this point, I kinda do hope Mickey Rourke gets some much-needed acknowledgment. The dude seriously busted his ass in the ring; for eight weeks he was trained as an actual pro wrestler, and it totally shows. The movie was so good that it actually made Rob and I feel bad about ourselves afterwards, since we are somewhat part of the problem, the ones that help keep the vicious circle alive; as much as I like to say how wrestling fans, despite their idiosyncrasies, are still more pleasant and socially adjusted than many diehard gamers and indie comic dorks out there, a good deal of them do love to see people fall on piles of tacks and through tables on fire, and I would be lying if I didn’t get some minute, perverse enjoyment from such a spectacle as well.

And speaking of fine entertainment, on the same day, something truly awesome arrived in the mail: a Splendid Recipes DVD containing episodes three, four, and five! The guys from Pittsburgh have asked me to help spread the word in NYC by making copies and to passing them to all my friends, so if your reading this and both personally know me and live in The Big Apple, you can most assuredly expect one. And if next time we meet and I don’t give you one, just ask! Or, you could simply nab one from the boys themselves, which at just $9 a pop, is a veritable deal steal.

Oh, also on Monday, I finally beat Persona 4…

Review: Persona 4 (PS2)

As noted many times, I have a real love/hate relationship with Japanese role-playing games. There’s so much about them that I find endlessly fascinating and appealing, but at the end of the day, two things completely kill them for me. First is the asinine plot that they all universally must have; most revolve around your character’s discovery of his the past, with the “shocking” revelation that you’re related to the main bad guy, leading to plenty of “I hate you dad, but I love you dad!” moments. The primary love interest/secondary character by rule has to start out hating your guts, plus is a raging tomboy that you also learn is the princess of the former ruling class, either in hiding or doesn’t know due to memory loss as well. And don’t forget the third lead role, your best friend who also loves the girl, to help form the hackneyed love triangle/extra boss battle before the end. The setting’s often some generic fantasyland with various sci-fi elements, like flying airships and robots created by wizards. There’s a macguffin of course, that gets dropped around the 65% point and is revisited near the very end, in a way that you just know the author thinks is totally smart and clever, but it’s totally not. Though the best part of the story is how it all unfolds at a snail?s pace; it usually takes anywhere from four to upwards of sixteen hours for things to actually get started, so no matter how clich?d and idiotic the plot might be, you’re so elated at that point for anything to happen that you’re not nearly as critical as a result. The next big problem is the gameplay: either it’s too easy, which I personally don’t mind, or it’s way too hard. Well, not so much too hard but way too complicated; not only is the primary mode of combat often too complex, there’s often some supplemental meta-game with its own rules and reasoning that one absolutely has to play as well if they want to get anywhere. So despite the fact that genre is at once completely vapid, most titles still manage to keep you busy, yet I wouldn’t say of it was anything “fun”. Fans/hopeless addicts of JRPGs will vehemently deny all of this, but I think it’s safe to say that many feel the same exact way that I do. You pick up whatever hot new game, hoping it’ll be fun, and then you give up after about ten hours due to frustration or boredom, usually both.

Then along came Persona 4! Well actually, first there was Persona 3, which was the first to combine anime sensibilities and dungeon crawling into a truly enjoyable, and most importantly, honestly accessible package. But Persona 4 takes everything that worked in part 3 and simply builds upon it to such an amazing degree. The basic formula from before remains the same, and is just as novel: you’re just an average high school kid who goes to school and hang with friends, even date girls on the side, but must also wage battle with evil creatures and others that would do people harm by summoning inner demons. Plot details goes something like this: you’re a big city kid whose folks have to do some business overseas for a year, so they send you to a small town in the boonies to live with your uncle and his daughter. And shortly after your arrival, bizarre murders start rocking the quiet village, which your uncle is in charge of investigating since he’s a detective. Naturally, you and your new found friends at school know something the rest of the adults don’t know and are the only ones who can solve the mystery, which revolves around the Midnight Channel, a special television channel that one watches on a late rainy night, to see one’s soul mate. This far-fetched rumor not only turns out to be true, but where the identity of the next murder victim is shown.

Whereas part 3 had a Harry Potter/X-Files feel, in which all the kids involved are part of some secret, underground organization that finds individuals with similar powers and enlists them into the cause, part 4 is more like X-Files/Scooby Doo; there’s still the treasure trove of bizarre characters and an ever twisting mystery, one that’s even creepier than last, but instead of everyone acting all emo and the “don’t trust anyone or anything” vibe that drove the action, here the gang is a real gang, a tight-knit group of best buds. And the characters are the one area where the game truly shines: yours is a fairly vanilla-plain avatar, which is by design, but everyone else is absolutely fascinating. From the girl that secretly resents her best friend, to the fellow big city transplant whose parents runs the local Wal Mart-esque super store that’s destroying the local economy. From there’s the big, angry tough guy who struggles to come to terms with his homosexual side, to the sweet-looking little old lady who calls herself ?Death?; the entire cast might easily be the most in-depth ever for any video game. The series has always been known for it?s tacking of mature and sensitive subject matter, and this one is no different. The sophisticated yet also frank manner in which sensitive topics are handled, at least for a video game, is rather amazing, to the point of being a break-through for the medium.

The actual mystery itself is a good one; you’ll be scratching your head quite a bit as you attempt to make heads or tales of the facts throughout the game, but in the end, everything falls into place just elegantly. Having a story and setting that’s somewhat real and therefore relatable makes the entire affair so much more engaging and enjoyable as opposed to just another stupid sci-fi/fantasy yarn. But back to the structure; once more, during most days you’ll be in class, interacting with fellow students and teachers. Afterwards you can choose to hang out with people and even participate in shared activities. It’s all about stat building; the more you engage with a person, the stronger your relationship with that individual becomes, which has a direct impact to combat. Because as previously noted, when traversing dungeons you will call upon assorted demons to do your bidding… A focal point of the action is going into the other world that the Midnight Channel serves as a window to and rescuing folks from themselves, from their mental baggage, which manifests itself into dangerous forms. Part of the process is having people confront their true selves, so when they join your party, they then use the once cast aside but now embraced alter ego, known as a Persona, to help in the fight. You start with one yourself, but as time goes on, you’ll get the chance to control many more (while everyone else is only able to wield just theirs), which are either collected or created by combining two or more. The type of Persona you get from this latter method and their attributes are directly tied to a specific “Social Link” in the real world. So the goal is to make as many friends as possible, and then to strengthen that friendship by maxing out the link.

In the case of females, a maxed out Social Link means she will become your girlfriend (for the most part). Which also means that to do well in Persona 4, you will need to juggle multiple ladies. Unfortunately, there appears to be no negative for dating more than one chick, especially in a game that really stresses moral responsibility. But given how complex the game’s structure is, simply from the designer’s stand-point, I can understand why. Though there is one point at least when, if you’re dating one specific girl and are out on a date, then another specific girl if you’re also seeing her as well, will stumble across the two of you and an uncomfortable moment will ensue, and that was pretty neat. Anyhow, in addition to other people, you have to be mindful of yourself too; there are various aspects of your personality that must also be built up, such as intelligence, courage, and communication. By being smart, strong, and charming (which is accomplished by doing such things as studying, participating in extracurricular activities, and even holding a part-time job) will allow you to better interact with others in the end (get good grades and you will be smart, which also makes people want to be your pal). This was present in part 3, but whereas before, if you tried to ask a girl out and she shot you down because you weren’t appealing enough, part 4 doesn’t even offer the chance to exercise the option. While some from before will object to such hand-holding, I appreciated it, because if you got rejected, generally speaking the girl will be mortified and then you would have to spend even more time fixing things.

The key overriding rule of Persona 4 is resource, primarily time management; there’s many people in the games to establish Social Links with, but given the rather tight structure, there isn’t enough time to become tight with everyone. Actually, there is, but it’s damn near impossible; based upon the mistakes I learned from Persona 3, from the get go in 4 I set my eyes on specific people… mostly the girls, really… and made sure to do whatever to be close to them, even if it meant snubbing virtual bros (sorry, but I’m just all about the video game ladies). Plus, doing all the stuff you need to do for yourself also takes valuable time as well, whether it be studying or just goofing off. There’s also a relatively timeframe to rescue a person from their dungeon, otherwise it’s game over. In that sense, the rigid schedule can be a bit stiffing, yet that’s also the real world I guess. It should also be mentioned that each person has their own story, and the closer you two become, the greater understanding you will have of the big picture. Also, there’s an added bonus for becoming closer with fellow party members, who will over time give it an extra 10% in battle, or even take a bullet for you.

May as well address the battle system: it’s your traditional turn based format, just you and three friends (over time, your numbers will grow, so you’ll have to pick and choose who will accompany you, perhaps based upon their Persona’s abilities) going round robin with the enemy till there’s a winner. You can either dish damage with just your hands via weapons or via Persona, which constitutes your magical arsenal more or less. Your party’s AI is quite sharp, even better than part 3, but the biggest addition here is the ability to directly control not just your guy but everyone, which is a necessity in the heat of an important battle. Whereas in part 3, there was one “super dungeon” that you went to over and over again, because the layout would change each time, this time the action is spread across multiple, smaller dungeons, which definitely adds some much needed variety (though the layout isn’t randomized as much, which in turn alleviates frustration, since if you’re running low on energy and resources, you can kinda know where to towards to for escape). Better yet is how each is fashioned after the inner workings of the target’s mind, which in turn enhances the story-telling. Also, the fights in general go down at a slightly faster pace, which may not be noticeable at first, but try playing Persona 3 immediately afterwards and its a world of difference. Plus, those who were turned off with how characters drew their Personas in part 3, which was holding a fake gun up to one’s temple to “evoke” them, an image that many found very uncomfortable, will be happy to hear that its all be done away in lei of tarot cards.

But despite the fact that P4 is super approachable, more so than P3 (other little changes that makes combat far easier include the ability to view an entire level’s layout all at once, as well as explanations as to what your other Personas’ assorted skills are, which makes choosing the right one in the heat of battle MUCH easier, as well as not having to worry about each party member’s overall health, which added a tremendously annoying element of micromanagement to the affair) it’s still a bit tougher (additional changes include a far tighter distribution of health and magic replenishments, plus how stuff costs more in general and there’s less money to go around). And at the end of the day, it’s a hardcore dungeon crawler; yes, you will have to grind if you don’t want every single boss encounter to be a complete mental ordeal I’m afraid. Yet I honestly didn’t mind setting aside an extra hour or three to just go up and down the same set of floors in a particular dungeon thanks to the super engaging combat. It’s just hella fun nabbing and creating new Personas, fine tuning them (as they gain experience points alongside you, new abilities can be added), and then discovering which ones work against certain enemies, as well as which do not. Also helping tremendously is the ultra catchy battle tune. Speaking off, Persona 4 easily boasts one of the greatest video game soundtracks of the year, hands down. In fact, it’s neck and neck with No More Heroes as the best game score period for this year, period. As for the graphics, many have bitched and moaned about supposedly deficiencies, and how the game should really be on a next-gen system. And while it hardly pushes the PS2, the visuals does what it needs to do and quite admirably; the art design is gorgeous. I’m just glad that it’s on a system with such a wide user base, meaning far more people will be able to experience and enjoy the game, as opposed to it being on a PS3. And speaking purely as an interface nerd, the art direction and graphic design employed for such stuff as the menus is simply jaw-droppingly beautiful. This game is stylish as all hell.

Other things of note? Well, it’s VERY Japanese. Everyone uses lots of Japanese-specific terms, especially when they address each other, which might seem a bit odd at first, but you get used to it. In fact, some have accused of the game going overboard, by inserting stuff that wasn’t in the original script. My only gripe is when a specific item, usually a food item, is mentioned without any real explanation as to what it is. As you can tell, I’m kinda grasping at straws when it comes to stuff to criticize. Speaking of, I’ve heard more than a few people bitch about the voice acting, but I personally love it. I’ve also heard some of the original Japanese voice actors, and trust me, us Americans are getting the better aural experience. Oh, and the way it connects to the previous game is also very cool, though I wish there was more of it.

Yet, despite the staggering brilliance that I find hard to believe cannot be noticed or acknowledged, I’ve still heard plenty of complaints, and at first I tried defending the game, till I realized who I was speaking with and how it’s simply not for them. While I hesitate to call it “the first casual dungeon crawler ever made”, it’s damn near close. If something like Disgaea is your idea of a good time (Jesus Christ, that game… I’ve actually never played it, but it appears that it requires professor-level math skills, plus I hear even the most basic of battles can take upwards of three hours… sounds like fun alright), then Persona 4 is most certainly not for you. But for everyone else, such as myself, this game is a Godsend. Despite the fact that it also suffers from another issue I have with JRPGs in general, which is length; it took a little over 100 hours for me to get through P4 on the normal difficulty level. Which is somewhat a slap in the face of my long-held belief that any good Japanese role-playing title shouldn’t be any longer than 25 hours, based purely upon my previous favorite JRPG of all time, Panzer Dragoon Saga. But again, the engrossing story and combat makes the time fly by, especially near the end as the drama kicks into high gear, with an ending that not only answers every single question that needed to be, but is also supremely emotionally satisfying as well.

It was 1998 when I was first completely captivated by Panzer Dragoon RPG. A decade later and we finally get a game that’s just as groundbreaking and innovative, as well as equally mesmerizingly fun to play. I kid you not; Persona 4 is easily the best JRPG to come out, literally, in the past ten years, and one of the finest games to come out this year. If you’ve always been curious of the genre but just couldn’t figure out how to step your foot in the door, or better yet, was once a fan but have since run away screaming, you simply need to do yourself a favor and give Persona 4 a spin. You will not be disappointed.

And because once again, tis the season, primarily to give… in fact, as of this writing, Christmas is just half an hour away… I guess it’s about time I finally do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now…


It’s simple: I love fan art, especially based on stuff that I like. Such as… Persona! Either 3 or 4. The prize? There will be several! Though the best of the best will nab a brand-new, sealed copy of Persona 4, courtesy of the fine folks at Atlus! There’s no deadline for this, but I’m hoping to have enough to choose from by the end of next month. So start drawing! All entries should be forward to me via email, which is matt at fort90 dot com.

UPDATE: Additional details, such as the deadline and pics of the totally AWESOME prize package can be found here.

Also, despite the fact that it’s way too late for even ultra last minute Christmas shopping, if you’re looking for an awesome gift somewhere later down the road, or perhaps something to blow that nice wad of cash you’ll be getting as a gift come tomorrow morning, might I suggest heading over to the store, where you will (finally) find both my latest installment of UNLUCKY and the first installment of the fort90zine for sale!

And finally, just wanted to wish everyone out there a very Merry Christmas!!!

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