Thursday, February 5, 2015

Aesthetic appeal in JRPGs: Persona 5 and Final Fantasy XV

This morning, my Twitter feed was abuzz with word of the first proper trailer for Persona 5. While Atlus did offer us a teaser in 2014, this new footage showed off more action-packed anime cutscenes in greater detail, as well as some of the dungeon-crawling and shop-browsing. While the majority of the response was positive, my own feelings toward the trailer were a tad mixed. To be fair, my experiences with the Persona series are relatively limited – I only played through Persona 4 within the past year and a half, am currently entering the late hours of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, and have spent a grand total of about twenty minutes with Persona 4 Arena. With that in mind, I have very much enjoyed the Persona games as I’ve played them thus far, and even the anime adaptation of Persona 4 was a solid offering, despite its need to condense the forty-plus hours required to play through its video game counterpart.

The new Persona 5 trailer

I did notice, however, one particular tweet that stated how someone had watched both this new Persona 5 trailer and the Final Fantasy XV gameplay trailer back-to-back, and how they felt it 'put things in perspective'. While I can’t speak on their behalf, I can say that this individual’s particular post led me to go and rewatch the Final Fantasy XV gameplay trailer from the Tokyo Game Show 2014, and I have since drawn some conclusions about the presentations of both titles. Obviously these titles are both a ways off yet, and we don’t know everything about the final product, so this is less my attempt at gauging the final games themselves, rather my thoughts on what we know of them so far and some concerns I have with the angle both Atlus and Square Enix are taking in trying to sell these titles.

To be blunt, I have very little faith in Final Fantasy XV. It’s been repurposed from Final Fantasy Versus XIII, which spent nigh on a half-decade in development hell. It appears to follow the action RPG formula, and the last time an FF title did that (Final Fantasy XII), it was met with heavily polarized reception. Equally strange is how un-Final Fantasy this latest numbered entry looks. There seems to be some strange obsession in the industry today that because our consoles have higher graphical capabilities than ever before, developers ought to push highly-detailed and hyper-realistic character and environment models, instead of being creative and adventurous. The problem with this approach is that the aesthetic loses its identity. Instead of colorful monsters and exciting Chocobo rides, we have been treated to dull brown behemoths and futuristic armor-clad soldiers with less variety in textures than Final Fantasy XIII’s Psicom troops. And all of this is presented through the eyes of a small group of stereotypical dude-bros with pretty faces and silly hair, getting overly excited as they spot these uninspired designs from an equally boring high-end car - one that looks like it could be driving through the Hamptons this very minute. Even the earlier trailer that announced Versus XIII’s rebranding as FFXV highlighted some (again) all-too-familiar Mediterranean architecture. There are no suits of Magitek armor to be seen, no medieval knights boarding a fight to the moon, no massive structures that combine ancient culture and space-age tech in seemingly impossible fluidity. There is a complete absence glory and fanfare in the overall presentation - just a group of handsome guys on a road trip, and their 'oohs' and 'aahs' at the other in-game assets proved a failed attempt at trying to evoke the same reaction from me.

The TGS 2014 gameplay trailer for Final Fantasy XV

Persona 5’s trailer showcases what I can only assume to be the base cast – four characters, including the neutral-looking male protagonist, his two blonde-haired friends (one male, one female), and a cat. I say the ‘base cast’ because that was how Persona 4 operated – the game offered three playable characters almost immediately, with the fourth (Yukiko) added to your crew only a few hours into the experience. From there, the other party members (Kanji, Rise, Teddie, and Naoto, respectively) were gradually incorporated into the story. Today’s trailer highlighted some chandelier-hopping, stealthy dashes down a hallway, the different places around the city that will be visited, and a couple of the menu systems and shops. It’s a lot to throw at fans of the series right off the bat, but understanding just how narrative-driven Persona titles are (yes, even a spinoff like Persona Q), this trailer has merely shown the tip of the iceberg.

What little was shown of the gameplay evoked an overwhelmingly positive response from me – the dungeon-crawling looks slightly more free-form than in Persona 4, but relies on the same general layout and design as far as I can tell. The shops appear almost entirely unchanged, albeit with new faces running them, and there will apparently be ample time spent in class or hanging out with friends. Though no fusions were explicitly shown, the Velvet Room’s Igor made a brief appearance, indicating that the familiar Persona Compendium will make a return. The aesthetic direction of this latest numbered entry in the Persona series has me unsettled, however, as the emphasis on black, red, and white is strikingly similar to the currently-popular Danganronpa games/anime.

I realize that aesthetic appeal is not something that everyone weighs with the same degree of importance. But for me, I at least want to enjoy looking at what it is that is on the screen in front of me, especially when I’m going to be spending anywhere between forty hours or more with a game. I might not be so disappointed with these four P5 characters if three of them were not such simply boring designs. The protagonist bears a striking resemblance to Vincent from Atlus’ surrealistic puzzle stacker, Catherine. Meanwhile, the blonde boy and girl have very few defining characteristics. I feel this is in part due to the darker color palette of Persona 5, as it emphasizes black suit jackets and pants for their school uniforms, and there similarly do not appear to be many distinguishing features in their bandit/super hero/vigilante costumes aside from them having different colors (which are, again, under dark lighting). I will give Atlus props on the cartoony, scarf-donning cat, who is easily the standout crew member at this point. But whereas Kanji was instantly recognizable thanks to his skull t-shirts and refusal to wear his jacket properly, Naoto's hat and coat quite becoming of a mysterious young detective, and Yosuke's headphone's and sharp smile subtle nods to his being the child of a successful business-owning family, the P5 cast - at least, as they stand right now - fall into territory that could easily have them confused for Danganronpa or generic characters from any other contemporary anime.

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