Out with the old, in with the review: Heavy Rain

Two relatively recent trends in video gaming have been the dreaded QTE (Quick Time Event) and a more story-driven style of gameplay. The QTE started its life cycle most notably with well-loved games such as Resident Evil 4 and God of War, but has since found itself over-used and much maligned in games such as Dying LightStory-led gameplay, i.e. doing little but walking around terrain and selecting the occasional dialogue option, has really found its feet with the dramatic rise of Telltale and their games based on The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us.


One of the forerunners in the story-led gameplay genre, however, was Fahrenheit for the PS2 (also known as Indigo Prophecy across the pond). Although I’ve heard it is clunky in parts, having not played it myself, it did create the blueprint for what its production company, Quantic Dream, would set about doing in the future. This first progression from the cold barren wastelands of Fahrenheit was the game I’m currently reviewing, Heavy Rain.


Heavy Rain is a game that has attracted some truly mixed reactions, especially with the passage of time. I was encourage to buy at least one Quantic Dream game by a friend back in England, who is a big fan of both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls (particularly the latter). Others find Heavy Rain to be a shoddily executed example of David Cage’s imagination spiralling out of control. What do I think? Well, my conclusions are somewhere in the middle, and rather than letting my blood boil over by what I played, instead I looked back on the whole experience and found it left a bland, non-descript taste in my mouth. It was as if my vindaloo had been covertly swapped for a korma.


Heavy Rain is labelled as a psychological thriller in which you play as four different characters, all with a specific connection to the Origami Killer case, which concerns a serial murderer who kidnaps young boys and drowns them in rain water. The primary character is that of Ethan Mars, a freshly divorced dad of two, who is still slowly recovering from a tragic accident. When his younger son goes missing, he takes it upon himself to track down the culprit and get his son, Shaun, back. Ethan is distinctly dead behind the eyes and yet is remarkably a sympathetic character; I personally found that I became heavily invested in making sure Shaun  was found alive.

Ethan’s also got that understated dad bod thing going on. Mmm, mediocrity.


The other characters are perhaps less engrossing, so I will list them in the order of my increasing disappointment with their portrayal. Scott Shelby is a private detective who is also trying to crack the conundrum of the Origami Killer, for his own reasons. He has several rendezvous with parents of the killer’s victims, all of which paint Shelby as an intriguing character and give you options to pick between the Good Cop and the Bad Cop role (even though he’s a PI and not a cop…you know what I mean). It also gives rise to some of the most captivating action sequences in the game, including ones in which QTEs are put to good effect (for example, the fight that can be triggered in escort Lauren’s motel room, if Shelby intervenes during a run-in with Lauren’s domestically violent former partner).


The zoomed-in profiles of the characters during the loading screens is used to good effect, though when a scene is taking a large amount of time to load, it can become quite jarring. I haven’t quite figured out whether this is unsettling in a way which enhances the game, or in a way which pulls me out of the action through being creeped out about characters who shouldn’t be creepy.

Madison is an investigative journalist for a newspaper who is also en route to find out juicy details about the Origami Killer, to further her own career. Sleeping in a motel to get some respite from the insomnia she struggles with at her own apartment, she bumps into Ethan and becomes entwined with his search, and with his personal life. Madison is rather stiff and lacks depth; furthermore, her mo-cap is quite possibly one of the worst of the bunch.


Something about her facial structure just isn’t as realistic as Scott’s, for example. I think the lantern jaw and wide eyes combo doesn’t help.

The character who was handled the worst was Normen Jayden, an FBI agent sent to help the local police force in tracking down the Killer. A troubled soul with a burgeoning drug addiction and a bag full of fancy gadgets, we learn very little about Norman, his background and if anyone at all really cares about his hallucination-ridden state. We’re not given reason to really care much about him, unlike with the other characters; his mo-cap is also not particularly great. For that reason, I wasn’t so taken with Norman when compared to the rest of the characters, and I felt like there were missed opportunities.


There would have perhaps been an opportunity here to show a cop consumed by his work and a wife back home left to pick up the pieces: families being destroyed by the Origami Killer in more abstract ways. Instead, he’s simply a workaholic obsessed with catching his man. Both these ideas are quite cliché, but at least with the former, we are given reason to actually care about Norman. Since most of the other adult characters are rather solitary figures with just a handful of meaningful human relationships (though, crucially, at least one or two), a character with a loving family that he himself is destroying would have actually spiced things up a bit.



Also, Norman looks kind of like a rabid Blues Brothers fan with those specs on.

So, best to start off with a few very brief, spoiler-light comments about the plot. The game does an excellent job of getting you invested in Ethan Mars’ personal life from the off, with the tutorial section following Ethan as he and his wife prepare a birthday party for one of their sons. Even though the tasks you can complete are quite mundane, it never dragged on and instead felt like a worthwhile investment in the character. This is precisely why Ethan ended up being one of my favourite characters in the game, despite the general story being nothing out of the ordinary.


Some of the story segments work better than others. The action scenes tended to be well done, though I am actually quite fond of QTE and so I am predisposed towards liking those kinds of action scenes. As already mentioned, a fight scene between Scott and a visitor to a brothel is particularly hair-raising, as is an encounter between Madison and an extremely shady doctor. What did not work for me were some of the challenges Ethan was given by the Origami Killer; I cannot elaborate too much without providing large spoilers, but one which involved navigating a tunnel was extremely tedious to complete and became so poorly mapped out that I ended up failing the level.


Furthermore, all of the attempts to inject some sexiness into the game just fall flat on their face. The one sex scene in the game is so awful I could barely bring myself to direct the male character to unhook the female character’s bra strap (yes, you are controlling someone having sex without having sex yourself – how awful); while I wanted the characters to get together, and so had to run through the scene, I was very close to blue-balling the male character. Honestly, David Cage, if you insist on putting sex in your games, only approach it in such as immersive manner when the technology is there to achieve what you want to achieve. Also, learn a few tricks from porn – nobody finds fumbling about with underwear arousing to watch. I’m sure the purpose of the sex scene was to titillate, not to make us all feel tremendously uncomfortable.


In addition, there is a part of the game where different achievements can be unlocked depending on how far you get a character to take off their clothes – this just seemed unnecessary and akin to fan-service, which is not to my liking. Heavy Rain is supposed to be a cerebral, ground-breaking game, so being so blatant with shoving cheap sexual imagery in your eyes seems like a tonal misfire.


Moving on to the gameplay, Heavy Rain is not too far removed from a point and click adventure, but with certain movements being controlled with painstaking precision by the player. For example, to drink a can of beer, you would yourself direct the character to drink using the analogue sticks to tip the can back, or some sort of similar motion using the PlayStation Move controller (if you buy the Move-compatible version, you can switch between the DualShock 3 and Move controllers in the Options menu). Furthermore, you can press the circle, square, cross and triangle keys to hear the character’s thoughts.


I thought it was all executed rather well, particularly the ability to hear what was whirling around in the characters’ minds, though I really wasn’t so enamoured with the literal direction of the character. I felt like it was often done to death. There is a section in the game where you direct Scott in cooking eggs, and there is even an achievement attached to getting the timings right. Look, Quantic Dream, if I wanted to play Cooking Mama, I have the cartridge and I would – just because a mechanic is all shiny and new does not mean you have to jam it down my throat every five seconds. On the other hand, it fit like a glove with the fight scenes. I got the strong sense that when Quantic Dream knows it’s on to something good, it uses it at every available second until it loses its sheen. It’s a really bad habit to develop and something I would hope improved with Beyond: Two Souls, as I have only played its demo so far.


Another element of gameplay which I felt was executed poorly concerned Norman’s investigative abilities. The demo on using his ARI technique to sift through collected evidence was fairly scant and I felt left to my own devices too much, which resulted in me becoming complacent and getting an associated bad ending. Don’t get me wrong, I do not expect Heavy Rain to hold my hand (an area in which Ethan is also notably lax), but the game had been doing a lot of hand-holding with other areas, such as the prologue’s birthday party. I don’t think the precise movement controls took as much getting used to as knowing how to properly use the ARI. On the other hand, actually searching crime scenes was far too easy; it was a case of simply walking past anything suspicious-looking and seeing whether it lit up like a Christmas tree. I kind of expected the detective elements to be much more up to scratch in a thriller game.


Next up on the criticism roster are the visuals and the sound. I don’t think there is actually that much to complain about regarding the visuals themselves, considering the time at which the game was brought out; the problem is that the graphics were not developed enough for what David Cage was trying to achieve with his vision. Maybe a lot of the awkwardness in the sex scenes (mouths barely meeting, for example) and weirdness in the facial expressions may be corrected in the HD remaster for PS4.

However, I believe some of the problems also lie in how well the foundation work on animating the characters was done, as some characters seemed to suffer from more “uncanny valley” problems than others. The game actually became quite creepy at times, and for the wrong reasons, because while the characters looked incredibly realistic in some frames, sometimes the mouths would not move as expected or the movement of the body would be slightly unnatural. This is a problem of the visuals being great, but not excellent enough to match up to Quantic Dream’s vision. The Kara tech demo and recent trailer show more promise regarding what Quantic Dream can achieve, once technology has caught up.


The music in the game is commendable, lending a sombre mood to the entire game. Scott’s parts were particularly supported by a good theme tune of sorts. One part of the game which takes place in a nightclub was marred slightly by some over-the-top, 70s porn-style music choices, but it wasn’t so bad that it made a mockery of the scenes I was watching/playing through. It’s clear to see through all of the development choices that Quantic Dream knows how to plan out a good game and at least half of what it requires to execute their plans well, but they suffer from 2 issues: 1) getting ahead of themselves regarding what they can actually achieve, i.e. with the PS3 hardware; 2) not knowing when to ease off on certain ideas which are only good in moderation.


Regarding the general experience of playing and potential replayability, I do not really have much drive to pick up Heavy Rain again any time soon. This is not because I found it an appalling experience, because I actually didn’t find it anywhere near that bad. Despite all my complaining throughout this review, I was able to set aside all of my problems with Heavy Rain and get immersed in the game as an at-worst competent, at-best gripping drama while I was actually sitting in my armchair to do my first playthrough. I played it over the space of five evenings, with an alcoholic drink and family-sized bag of crisps at the ready, lapping it all up.


The problem is that because of the layout of the game, getting all of the achievements cannot be managed in one playthrough, and replaying story-based chapters that you’ve just seen, or even the whole game, once you know the plot twists is quite boring. This is a pitfall when the game is predominantly about story; unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool completionist, you’re not going to want to sit through it all again for at least a few weeks, if not longer. Sure enough, parts of the plot do adapt to your decisions towards the end, but chances are that the niggling doubts about Heavy Rain will stop you from wanting to take time completing it.


Heavy Rain is, in conclusion, a slightly haphazard but fundamentally competent game. If you’re anything like me, you will find it captivating at the time, but be done with it by the end of your first playthrough. I would recommend you pick it up as a cheap PS3 copy (I found mine at CeX in Manchester for £6); regarding the PS4 version coming out as a digital download on March 1, keep your eye on the reviews when it is released. I would say you should only shell out the extra money for this version if some of the problems I’ve mentioned have been fixed, for example the creepy, talking doll-like expressions of the characters have been somehow smoothed over significantly. Even then, it is probably only worth paying more than about £10 for the experience if you’re the type of person who can force yourself to play the same story multiple times, or the branching element of the story is improved significantly with the transition to PS4. I would definitely not tell you it’s a terrible game unworthy of your time, but you should know what it is worth before you buy it, and don’t expect to be immersed i Heavy Rain for very long.


Out with the old, in with the review: Hatoful Boyfriend HD (PC) (MILD SPOILERS)

Steam sales will drive a girl towards making strange decisions. When you’re faced with a flurry of titles, all at extreme knock-down prices (to the extent that your fancy afternoon latte costs more), you tend to just download whatever looks mildly interesting or what you happen to have heard about in passing, in case it turns out to be a diamond in the rough. A couple of my Twitter followers had not stopped crowing about Hatoful Boyfriend, so I glossed over the wildly popular Undertale in favour of the infamous avian dating simulator.


Yes, that’s right: Hatoful Boyfriend is a dating sim in which the objects of your affection have wings. The protagonist (who goes by the canon name of Hiyoko Tosaka) is a human who has opted to attend the prestigious St Pigeonation’s Institute, an independent school in which she is the only non-bird, humans having been curiously decimated by an earlier outbreak of the H5N1 virus. However, her “hunter-gatherer” instincts, and the development of a superior race of bird, means that she fits into the school and its various activities rather well, with her childhood friend Ryouta (a rock dove) being one friendly face worthy of note. The story revolves around a host of varied characters, all with (at least) semi-developed backstories, such as Sakuya the regal fantail pigeon and Shuu the shifty partridge doctor.


The game is a very typical dating sim, in the sense that it largely takes the shape of a visual novel. The player is given the ability to name the protagonist (I went for the slightly unfortunate Smeghead McGoo, given that I already suspected this was going to be a game which I wouldn’t take in the least bit seriously). You can also decide whether to display human portraits next to the still which introduce each of the birds.


I would recommend toggling this option on, even if it is more hilarious to commit whole-heartedly to the idea that the characters you are interacting with are birds, because the average person’s facial recognition abilities are much more sophisticated regarding new human faces when compared with recognising animals’ faces. I felt like I memorised the characters after one or two run-throughs thanks to the human facial prompts, whereas it would have taken a bit longer if this option had been toggled off.


After that, your best bet at the beginning is to favour interactions which have something to do with a particular character, and to stick to that path as early as possible; my first play-through had Smeghead obsessing over Kazuaki, the slightly empty-headed quail teacher. This will result in your amour’s storyline, and information about their history, playing out on-screen, leading to some sort of denouement in the middle of the third term of the school year.


Looking at the Steam trophies (which are all visible from the beginning), a couple of characters have 2 endings. Furthermore, there are no Catherine-like “strong independent simian who don’t need no bird” endings, so favouring a character will not do you out of a “neutral” ending. This is worth taking into consideration, even if it is a slight spoiler, because of one of the major caveats that comes with playing Hatoful Boyfriend.


Hatoful Boyfriend is a very short game. I am a fairly slow reader, and the first run-through (one which didn’t contain as much skipping through the text as with later attempts) only took me just over an hour. The game tracks about 2 and a half terms at St Pigeonation’s Institute, with huge time-skips within the game. Where the length of the game and the value-for-money comes in is through the replayability, with 15 endings to view (one which is only available after the previous 14 have been viewed). However, large portions of the text, such as the elective classes that the protagonist attends, remain the same, regardless of in-game choices. As a result, this game will grate on you fairly quickly if you find it troublesome to skip through walls of text. I certainly found it quite tedious.


A further issue I had was the lack of combined endings, or more sophisticated script devices. Selecting certain options would clearly initiate the beginnings of a romantic relationship, close them down, or even prompt the appearance of hidden characters, but the script was never adjusted to create the illusion of characters reacting to earlier dialogue, except for where this was part of the romantic interest’s clearly-defined story arc. Furthermore, sitting on the fence between two characters would result in one character eventually winning out, rather than a love-triangle ending or some sort of romantic showdown. I found this a little basic and disappointing regarding my expectations of a modern dating sim, albeit from the perspective of someone who has not played a dating sim before, and concerning a dating sim which is more of a parody rather than an earnest example of its genre.


It would be easy to criticise the script but I was actually fairly satisfied with it. There were elements of political intrigue, mythology and philosophy present; the characters pondered what life and death really means, and whether it is best to fulfil roles assigned by rank or to create one’s own path in life. The themes weren’t always handled with the most clarity or in the ideal amount of depth, but they were handled much better than I would have expected from a dating sim about birds. Also, I got the sense that with a specific character arc, the mythology was depicted as overblown and silly on purpose, as a mockery of overly complicated JRPG themes (*cough* Persona *cough*). I still found this particular storyline a little tiresome to read and to internalise, meaning I skipped through whole chunks of the plot almost as an automatic response to my own weariness and abject boredom.


It is also not made very clear what the skill points from the electives are useful for in some of the run-throughs (in others, they are of at least marginal use). If your first handful of run-throughs don’t use this mechanic and you have no need to impress the teacher, this can come off as lazy and disappointing; if amassing skills is made part of the plot, it would be nice to see this put to good use in every run-through. One final criticism involves the proof-reading of the English version – there are some sloppy spelling mistakes (“Motzart” and “timpany”), which are pretty unforgiveable when your game consists largely of text.


However, it is by no means the most straightforward dating sim I could conceive of, and it runs with the joke of being an aviary dating sim pretty well, managing to avoid tripping over its own feet (claws?) as the plot progresses. The plot twists and turns, providing surprising nooks and crannies through which the various achievements can be obtained, and the bird-themed jokes (Legumentine’s instead of Valentine’s, anyone?) won’t wear thin on those who are used to a “dad joke” calibre of humour.


As a result, it is a moderately interesting curiosity which I would not discourage you from trying. However, it does involve a lot of repetition in the multiple play-throughs, which are necessary to thoroughly appreciate the game, and the plot is not the most cerebral. As a result, the sale price of 1,99 Euros is just about right. I would definitely discourage you from paying more than a handful of Euros for this, as it has fundamental issues and is lacking in some areas of development. However, it is interesting to sample, as an experimental game more than anything else.



Out with the old, in with the review: Papers, Please

Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for games which have some sort of social commentary behind them. It doesn’t hurt for a game to be clever and to make a deeper political point, as long as the mechanics that make it a “game” (rather than the “interactive experience” nonsense I can’t quite get my head around with games such as Journey) are solid. After all, games are a means through which we can explore different aspects of society and our perceptions of them, just as film and TV can also test how we see the world around us.

I’m also a bit of a history and politics nerd, so understanding how totalitarian systems may thrive on a regime of fear seems like the firm basis of an interesting game to me, as long as it’s carried out sensitively. The difficult questions that average people face in extreme societies – whether to conform and survive, or to stand against injustice and risk their lives – are luckily something that those of us living in some semblance of a democracy can largely escape. However, putting ourselves in the shoes who have suffered at the hands of such regimes allows us to test our own moralities and to learn something about those less fortunate than ourselves.

As a result, the premise of Papers, Please, an indie title developed for Steam by Lucas Pope, is something I can really get behind. You play a nameless border patrol officer in the state of Arstotzka (parallels with the USSR are unavoidable), who has the unenviable job of checking passports, work permits and visas of those trying to pass through.

Credit to IGN Germany: http://de.ign.com/papers-please-mac/88563/news/papers-please-passkontroll-simulation-bald-fur-die

Although Arstotzka is quite a popular state with immigrants, it is not without its own troubles. As the game progresses, civil and political unrest, as well as harsh conditions, place the protagonist under greater pressure to feed his family, heat his home and keep everyone in his household in good health. The protagonist has his work supervised by a silent yet merciless supervisor, who will dock pay after a certain amount of “mistakes” have been made. One too many mistakes and it’s Game Over.

Game Mechanics

So, Papers Please is at a basic level testing the player’s ability to quickly recall a complex list of rules, or in the very least be able to quickly look up these rules. As the levels progress, Arstotzka’s diplomatic relations and economic situation will change, meaning that the list of criteria that have to be checked with each visitor/worker/resident becomes steadily longer. The game is therefore largely a memory and adaptation test. Those who love puzzle and strategy games will enjoy poring over passports and height charts to spot miniscule errors, such as an implausible birthdate.

However, to say that the game is purely about applying rules in order to win is to overlook an entire aspect of the game. Your border inspector faces moral decisions: many of the people trying to cross (at all costs) may have family, just like the protagonist himself; letting certain people through or opting for particular choices may help precipitate the downfall of the corrupt regime you are working for. The flip-side to this is the aforementioned consequences of not doing your job properly, and the effect on your family. There are also other consequences for “doing the right thing” above simply “doing your job”, which I shall not reveal to avoid massive spoilers.

Credit to Gabriel Bieber and Next Gamer: http://www.next-gamer.de/reviews/papers-please/


For a game which is not particularly tasking on the average CPU (I could get my battered, £250 laptop with a faulty fan unit to run it without too much strain), it is an effortlessly stylish one. The soundtrack is droning and stern, which fits in with the stark and bleak atmosphere of a totalitarian state in crisis. The voices are reduced to mechanical-sounding muffles, which helps add to the impression that the world surrounding the player character is cold and threatening.

Credit to Unabhaengige Tester: http://www.unabhaengige-tester.de/game-review/papers-please/

The visuals are reduced to a palette of black, grey, green and red, which adds to the sense that your character is simply trudging through his working day and that all of the life has been drained out of his surroundings. The art style adds to this effect by being pixellated, but in a polished way. This is counterbalanced with the sense of humour running through the entire game. While there are certainly dark plot points, a handful of genuinely funny moments break the tension in quite a nice way, for example the appearance of a slightly too audacious and slightly too relaxed drug smuggler.

Replayability Factor

As already discussed, the story in Papers, Please is one of survival against morals, and also one of questioning what is even a fundamental moral choice. Is it immoral to save a family member above a complete stranger, or the reverse? As a result, even though the plot is quite basic in places and also quite unoriginal (totalitarian state involved in diplomatic difficulties, who knew), the story is by no means linear.

Because there are many opportunities to branch off on different moral paths, there are multiple endings which are unlockable. The stages map shows all of these branching paths, allowing a player to easily start back from a particular crossroads in order to see the consequences of alternative choices. You’ll most certainly want to go back and see all of the different endings, which could be quite a time sink, but the ability to do this without having to start from the beginning or know where to save is quite nifty.

Credit to Digital Spy: http://www.digitalspy.com/gaming/news/g18427/papers-please-screenshots/

Furthermore, after one playthrough, infinite modes are unlocked. These allow the player to see how long they can survive without running out of money or to see how many “customers” they can process before their shift is over. There is even a “perfection” mode, resulting in a Game Over if even a single mistake is made (being a moralist is therefore impossible in this mode, unless you want the game to end).

This is quite fun for those of us who play for the puzzling as well as for the story, though clearly it is something to dip in and out of, rather than something that will suddenly absorb an entire afternoon. Even though at least some of the migrants being processed are randomly generated, there are only so many times you can do full body scans on a rather portly bloke from a neighbouring state before you go bozz-eyed or your mind starts to wander.

Nevertheless, Papers, Please has some interesting gameplay balanced against a fascinating snapshot of the life of someone in a morally tasking job. For those of us who have our feet firmly planted in the 1st world and turn up day-in-day-out for an average desk job, this game might lead to questions as to what you would do if your boss (the only boss you can have) asks you to enforce morally questionable rules. Would you use the regime to your benefit? Or would you fight against the system? I think all of us would like to think we’d fall into the latter category; what we would actually do if it happened to us is perhaps an entirely different matter.

Out with the old, in with the review: Persona 3 FES

The Persona series appears to have flown somewhat under the radar for Western gamers, at least in comparison with the much-lauded Final Fantasy series. However, it has garnered a cult following over the years, combining schoolyard hijinks with gruelling turn-based combat system and nail-biting dungeon crawling.

The popularity of the Persona series was bolstered by the release of Persona 3. The original version was released in Europe in February 2008, followed by an enhanced edition called “Persona 3 FES” in October 2008, and finally P3P (a portable edition of the game) in April 2011. Both follow-ups to the core Persona 3 game have their strengths and weaknesses. This review will focus on Persona 3 FES, as this is the version that is available for the PS3 on the PS Store.

Persona 3 FES is a beefed-up edition, with a few additional features here and there in the main game (including a hard mode and added Personas). Most notably, it comes packaged with a whole new scenario: The Answer. This is in contrast with the standard edition of Persona 3, which just contains the main campaign, called The Journey. One of the largest bones of contention with FES is this epilogue. First of all, though: what shenanigans is our sullen-faced, emo-haired slip of a protagonist getting up to?

The Story

The story of Persona 3 is set in a seemingly average Japanese town, and closely follows the daily life and adventures of the player’s character (as with most RPGs, this name can be as sweary as the player pleases, but the canonical name is Minato Arisato). The game follows a calendar system, tracking the progress of the protagonist over one school year.

Upon his arrival in town to start school, the protagonist is met by a row of coffins lining the streets, and worst of all, his beloved headphones start cutting out. He soon learns that the mysterious goings-on are due to the emergence of a secret world which most average Joes would be unaware of: the Midnight Hour. During this ghostly hour, monsters known as Shadows wreak havoc. Due to the special powers of the protagonist and his various dorm-mates, they are able to battle the Shadows, in the hopes of restoring natural order.

Credit to Games Radar: http://www.gamesradar.com/persona-3-versus-persona-3-portable/

This creates a really interesting dichotomy not seen very often in other RPGs; rather than being a constant adventurer slaying beasts and scoring sweet loot, your character and his friends are really just normal teenagers, trying to perfect their cooking skills or studying for their next set of exams. Through the Social Link function, the protagonist has the chance to forge close friendships and testy romances; the intentions behind this are not only to help level up newly-acquired Personas, but also to give you a window into more of the plot. And the plot is gripping. Admittedly, you’ll not want to get bogged down in picking out plot-holes, as these are piled almost as high as Tartarus (the dungeon tower which you explore). However, the plot pulls that valuable stunt of making the player really feel for the characters, with shocks and scares aplenty in the twisting and turning of the narrative.

Battle Mechanics


As already mentioned, the Persona battle system is a turn-based one, in which the main goal is to identify enemy weaknesses and exploit them. Defeating enemies in Tartarus rewards EXP, money and triggers an occasional item drop. For the most part, it is left to the player to gauge how often they go into Tartarus and how high they should climb, though certain parts of the tower become unlocked on given in-game calendar days. This means that you can easily have your arse handed to you if you slack off before a big boss battle. Make no bones about it: Persona 3 is a challenging and often punishing game.

Weapon upgrades are fairly easy to come by, be it through having epic swords crafted at a local store or opening chests scattered through Tartarus. Furthermore, as you level up, the spells at your fingertips become satisfyingly devastating to your enemies and wide-ranging; having said that, items to replenish SP can become slightly too elusive.

Credit to Greg Noe on firsthour.net: http://firsthour.net/full-review/how-persona-3-destroyed-my-love-for-japanese-rpgs

The biggest problem with the battle mechanics, according to some reviewers, is the fact that you can directly control only the protagonist; other characters can be assigned to healing duties, for example, but it can become frustrating when your “healing and assisting” character plumps for defensive spells rather than direct heals. However, I actually enjoy this mechanic much more than the direct control of Persona 4 (though I acknowledge I am in the minority with this), since it adds an extra level of tactical planning into the mix. Overall, the combat is satisfying, yet can require a small amount of rather tiresome grinding within slightly repetitive floor designs.

Skills Mechanic

Persona 3 also includes a skill development mechanic, which is used to unlock certain Social Links for the character. Setting aside time after school to study in the library to build Knowledge, or answering questions in class correctly to acquire Charm, gives the plot-based elements of the game extra clout.

However, here comes the biggest flaw in Persona 3, which was thankfully yanked from Persona 4: the exhaustion mechanic. After hefty battles or even excessive studying (math is haaard, guys), the protagonist can become tired or even sick, resulting in poorer battle performance unless he is ordered to rest up. This appears to be a cheap way to slow progress and to make accessing or completing some of the Social Links much harder, prodding the player towards starting a New Game +. Unfortunately, this does make the game less enjoyable.

The Answer


So, the Journey is without a doubt one of the most enjoyable games I have played in recent memory, and is well worth the 9.99 Euros it is being sold at on the German PS Store (£7.99 in the UK Store). However, is the epilogue worth a try? Does it add anything remarkable, or does it simply sour the admirable legacy left behind by The Journey?

Unfortunately, the Answer is lacking in substance compared to the main game. It follows one of the protagonist’s team-mates, a robot named Aigis, as she explores the wider truth behind the mythos of the Personas. The plot leads to significant in-fighting in the group, and it can be quite hard to watch characters you have grown to know and love tear each other to shreds. Those who knocked down the difficulty a notch with the Journey will also find that the Answer makes them tear their hair out. Crucially, it is mainly just more dungeon crawling, with fragments of story slipped in as a brief distraction; there is no social-linking or thorough exploration of the wider town in which the characters live.

Credit to Giant Bomb: http://www.giantbomb.com/shin-megami-tensei-persona-3-fes/3030-20683/

As a result, I would say it is probably worth giving the Answer a look, out of curiosity, but it is equally a good idea to call time on the experience if progressing becomes a chore. On the other hand, the Journey is worth persevering with. You will easily find there is much to explore even after building up a lengthy save file on one run-through, and being able to complete Social Links quickly and build up a frankly badass Persona army will leave you stoked to start a NG+ file.

For 9.99 Euros, Persona 3 FES is an absolute bargain, even if you never touch the Answer scenario. The only problem is that once you’ve dug your spoon deep into a bowl of Persona 3, you’ll find yourself wanting second helpings in the form of Persona 4 – followed by offshoots such as Persona Q, Persona 4 Arena and Persona 4: Dancing All Night. With Persona 5 scheduled for release on PS3 and PS4 in 2016, it could just become your new favourite franchise. Sorry, Tidus.

We Need to Talk About Kara: Detroit and “Robot Rights”

At yesterday’s Sony Paris conference, David Cage’s production company Quantic Dream announced a new title for the PS4 – one with old roots. The game is Detroit: Become Human, an interactive story following the travails of the slight heroine Kara as she wanders through the city, seeing the sights and enjoying the feeling of rain on her fingertips.

We’ve seen Kara before. She was centre stage in a tech demo which Quantic Dream designed to showcase its engine, back in the days before Beyond: Two Souls. The non-interactive featurette showed Kara being assembled – yes, that’s right, Kara is an android – and put through her paces, in preparation for being shipped to serve human hosts in any way they so desired. The problem is that Kara seemed to have developed consciousness; she developed feelings, and a (figurative and perhaps literal?) heart. She didn’t want to be servile to mankind; she wanted to live her life and possess the same freedoms that you and I are entitled to. Kara pleads not to be disassembled as a “defective product” because of her emotional outburst, and so the disassembly robot disobeys orders. She is placed back on the conveyor belt and sent on her merry way.

After this tech demo was released to the world, there was high demand for it to be developed into a full game, one in which we got to grapple with the questions of morality concerning robots and their relationships with their human counterparts. However, Quantic devoted themselves instead to development of the supernatural, spiritual journey of Beyond. This was subject to some praise for its foray into “interactive storytelling” and its attempt at innovative game mechanics, but fell flat slightly on story and also on execution.

Fast forward a few years and Kara is here, rallying against injustice and wanting you to experience her story. As already mentioned, my hopes for what Quantic Dream will do with the idea are pegged quite low, though I have to hold my hand up and say that I don’t have that much experience with QD’s prior releases. I’ve watched Let’s Plays of both Heavy Rain and Beyond, and I’ve played through the Beyond demo; I found the controls of Beyond to be counter-intuitive to the extent that they drew me out of the action, instead of immersing me in the action, as the studio intended. However, I’m not here to criticise Quantic Dream’s potential execution of the ideas put on the table; instead, I’d like to discuss the story and how gaming approaches the issue of “humans vs robots”.

A Robots vs Humans Class Struggle?

The trailer of Detroit depicts an industrial city – erm, Detroit – which has devoted itself, presumably in the collapse of the American automobile industry, towards producing androids for consumer use. We are also shown that the androids are treated as little more than objects; they are parked at the side of the road like bicycles and relegated to a different carriage to other subway passengers. They are also demarcated by an illuminated white circle on their temple. This is a really fascinating idea, as it leads us to question whether this treatment of androids as a “sub-class” of being is because they are, in actuality, little more than objects, or whether it is more akin to the segregation seen in many totalitarian societies across the course of history.

As a result, the trailer makes it clear that Detroit focuses its lens heavily on the idea of “robot rights”. It can be implied that it is not just Kara who has the potential to be this thinking, feeling enhancement of bog-standard artificial intelligence, as other androids react in human-like shock at seeing her waltz through town unshackled to an “owner”. While it could be that the game follows on from the tech demo in suggesting Kara is a “defective product”, and actually other robots cannot experience emotion, the trailer leads us to believe that the emotional element instead lies dormant in other androids, or is hid behind some sort of firewall.

If we’re going to make a game on giving robots rights, there are actually two different paths that can be taken. The first option – the “assimilation model” – is what Detroit seems to follow. However, there is the more creative path that will sadly perhaps not be followed up, and that is the idea of robots being their own self-contained species with their own scheme of rights, separate from the yardstick of what humans determine is valuable.

The “Assimilation Model”

The “assimilation model” (as I will call it) is a plot point commonly followed in modern gaming, films etc. This consists of two ideas: 1) androids develop to become more human-like, going beyond the “uncanny valley” point to actually being indistinguishable from humans; this includes developing emotional and social intelligence; 2) androids becoming more human is a mark of sophistication and has positive outcomes. To illustrate this idea, I’ll use another game (one of my favourites) that closely follows the assimilation model.

Persona 3, a JRPG dungeon-crawler, has an android character called Aigis. When she meets the protagonist and his friends, it soon becomes obvious just how “robotic” she is. The protagonist’s inner monologue regularly comments on how strange her mannerisms are; also, her appearance is clearly one of metal plates and screws. However, as the story progresses, Aigis comes to learn that the journey (pardon the pun) of her and her team-mates may be more valuable than the fixed goal she is seeking; she comes to learn the value of friendship. She even appears to behave like an organic being in the epilogue to P3 (the Answer). It’s implied that this development makes Aigis a better, deeper character, and that her development to become more human-like is an objective good.

(Check out Fuuka’s terrible voiceover…jeez.)

This is driven by two things. We are human, therefore “being human” is at the centre of our perception and consciousness. Of course being human has to be positive, as one of our main purposes on this planet is to continue existing; why would this purpose exist if humanity was a bad thing? It’s also driven by the fact that we hold emotional and social intelligence to be something which “pure androids” do not possess, and yet is a powerful determinant in how well we get on in the world.

However, with the second driving component – the importance of human emotion and sociality – we are falling into a trap. We believe that emotional and social intelligence is important for two reasons: functionality and pleasure. An example is romantic attachment – we treasure having partners because they provide us with support, but also because they simply make us feel good. What if robots never (ever!) develop the ability to feel good for feeling good’s sake? Then, the functionality element only remains.

However, emotional and social intelligence does not always lead to the efficient fulfilment of functions, even in the most emotionally in-tune of people. We all have days with spectacular highs, and other days with crushing lows. Compared to an android with no sense of emotion whatsoever, we may be better placed to interact with the world on our good days, but worse placed to interact with it on bad days. This is presuming that the world does not change around the very existence of androids, to the extent that emotion and social connection itself generally becomes devalued.

The result is that in following the “assimilation model”, we are projecting all sorts of presumptions about the “good” of humanity onto robots; goods which robots themselves may never develop to perceive. I am no nihilist or misanthrope, and I believe that the world without humanity would be a terrible thing; however, it is not a foregone conclusion that the end-game of robotics development would be an exact match to human beings. In fact, it could be argued that that is simply a slightly disappointing half-way point, simply arising from the fact that the designers of androids are human themselves and will obviously project themselves onto their designs.

So, how would the storyline develop if we follow the assimilation model? Well, the question arises as to whether, if Kara and her crew are “more or less” humans, whether they should then be afforded human rights. This includes the right to freedom, i.e. the right not to be servile to human beings. This is actually quite complicated from a legal perspective, as it is hard to identify what being “human” really means in all senses. If something non-organic can think like a human, why not treat it as a human? On the other hand, if something is made of human flesh and bones and yet cannot think like a human, should it still be covered by a scheme of human rights? This is something that animal rights law and abortion law has already debated back and forth for decades.

While this is all very fascinating, it is not particularly fresh. As already described, it also comes bundled with a whole load of preconceptions which may or may not be true. What would be more interesting would be to follow the “different species” model.

The “different species” model

What I will describe as the “different species” model can also be split into two parts: 1) androids are to be treated as non-human and therefore not subject to the protection of human rights, but also 2) this is not used to subjugate the needs of androids, but rather to give them their own (perhaps equally important) scheme of protection. This may be seen as the fairer way to treat intelligent androids, precisely because it is not human-centric.

This is an idea that has already cropped up in the area of children’s rights. Do we treat 5 year olds as mini-adults, simply projecting an idea of “adult rights” onto them? Or do we sit down and assess what is truly important to the existence of a 5 year old, such as the ability to play in the park or to learn to read, and then construct our own scheme of protection? This question can be similarly transposed onto the question of protecting androids.

So, instead of becoming human-like, Kara could instead develop her own wants and needs, perhaps overlapping, but not necessarily the same, as those of a human. She may simply lack emotional intelligence and therefore not desire any emotional contact, but she may still be interested in preserving her own longevity. Such a robotic rights scheme may therefore omit the right to a personal life, if robots do not perceive of a “personal life” as integral to their sense of self, but include a right to repair of parts (similar, but not identical, to our human “right to bodily integrity”).

Instead, when we presume that all developed androids will essentially become indistinguishable from humans, we put ourselves in the centre of the robotic universe without thinking whether this is the right, or indeed the accurate, thing to do. It’s quite possible that robots will develop their own outlook on the world, quite separate from the human gaze, once they have become so developed that they can “evolve” without interference of human engineering. Once humans no longer need to design them or upgrade them, taking a human-centric approach to how to protect intelligent, non-human life forms may become less and less sensible.

This is something that Detroit could have explored due to the fact that it was a production-line robot that set her free in the tech demo. A game which explores identity, similar to the broad idea underpinning Beyond: Two Souls, would actually be quite innovative, as we naturally tend to peg any movement towards human-like behaviour as the standard; it would be interesting to have this challenged. However, it seems like what we have instead is a game about robots becoming like their “masters” and fighting to be understood as human themselves. Kind of a wasted opportunity, if you ask me.