morality

Persona 5 Review — Thou Art Immature

by Jed Pressgrove

Persona 5, cited by Famitsu readers as the greatest role-playing game ever, has enough stylistic flourishes for several games. From the visually dynamic menus to the finishers that leave enemies spraying arterial fluid, it’s hard not to feel a sense of coolness while playing Persona 5. Undoubtedly, director Katsura Hashino intends for players to be invigorated and empowered by how hip the game seems; after all, the very story involves a group of teenagers who shake off their insecurities and come into their own as secret superheroes. But the excitement that Persona 5 exudes is stunted by terrible editing, which leaves too much room for tired ideas, excessive tutorialization, and self-righteous morality.

As a reserved (rather than silent) protagonist, the player travels, with a team of misfits, to the Metaverse, a world that reflects the darkest desires of human beings, whether that be the lust of a high school coach or the greed of a CEO who exploits workers. Your party is known as the Phantom Thieves, all teenagers who have awakened powers they never knew they had, with the goal to change the hearts of wicked adults by fighting them in the Metaverse. Like the last two Persona games, you must also engage in life-simulator activities, such as studying for school and having get-togethers, on a day-to-day basis. This real-life facade doesn’t just make Persona 5 stand apart from most RPGs, though. As your character, for example, wakes up for the umpteenth time to a text message from a friend wanting to hang out, the daily grind shows a desperate need for editing, as it’s difficult to stay emotionally connected to writing that frequently seems copied and pasted.

You could make a frightening grocery list of occurrences, phrases, character beats, and plot contrivances that lose impact and meaning after appearing too many times in Persona 5. For instance, the story of the Phantom Thieves taking down corrupt adult after corrupt adult is framed as part of an interrogation. At first, this framing has gravity, as it invites you to consider whether the main characters are heroic or simply criminal. But after a few dozen hours, these sequences — punctuated by generic suspense-themed music — are annoying in that they interrupt your engagement with the tale at hand; restate things you already know from playing the game (such as one character serving as a computer genius); and reveal targets of the Phantom Thieves rather than letting the player become aware of these suspects in an organic way.

With such repetitive scenes, it appears that Hashino wants to make sure no one is confused during Persona 5. Admittedly, I was never lost during the proceedings, even when I took weeks-long breaks from playing. At the same time, getting into the game can be an awkward endurance test thanks to the tutorial messages that dominate anywhere from the first 12 to 20 hours of the experience. And even though these prompts appear less and less throughout, the game still bakes in hints and pats on the back for the player to a condescending degree. In more than one scene, you might solve an obvious puzzle only to be inundated by remarks from almost every main character about the solution. Persona 5 frequently doesn’t know how to shut up.

If only the game’s lack of editing merely translated into exhaustion. In addition to not wasting time, one should want to tell a story that doesn’t waste thematic potential, and a good editor can trim away contradictions to maintain focus. With an upbeat soundtrack, lines like “Your heart is steadily gaining the strength of rebellion,” and constant hand holding, Persona 5 celebrates the achievements of the Phantom Thieves (the player) so much that any of the script’s moral questions come off as accidental dots on a humongous canvas. What’s more, characters like Sae and Akechi who criticize the justice of the Phantom Thieves are portrayed as self-absorbed and unlikable, whereas the awakenings of the protagonists’ true selves drip with spiritual and sexual appeal.

Given how the Phantom Thieves reform a villain by meddling with his or her subconscious, Persona 5 seems to train one to think that the psychological trick of shaming people you find irredeemable is not only cool but the right thing to do. This type of indignation is perfectly summed up by the talking cat Morgana while discussing a person who kills animals: “I can’t ever forgive a human like that.” And so, like the social-media crusaders who dogpile sinners, the Persona 5 audience will likely not consider the God complex required to believe that you have the authority to change the spots of a leopard.

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Always Full of Crap

by Jed Pressgrove

Always Sometimes Monsters spreads the dangerous idea that humans are horrible. Developer Vagabond Dog’s exploitation of modern working-class anxieties and paranoia should not be celebrated, and its disregard for morality and diversity should not be interpreted as “ambitious.” Always Sometimes Monsters preaches the exact opposite of ambition: stay sad, stay mad, stay bad.

Vagabond Dog paints a dog-eat-dog world, but this truth isn’t presented as a realization through experience — it’s a presupposition, a demented rulebook by which we can judge our idiotic actions. Always Sometimes Monsters blandly states upfront that “In this system there can be no right or wrong,” rejecting the social conviction of the citizens who react to your decisions in Fallout. Like the film Pulp Fiction and its imitators, Always Sometimes Monsters packages human life as a bundle of unexpected, dark connections. As such, your decisions in the game merely build a unique portrait of misery and immaturity.

Framing its main story as a narrative from a bum in an alley, Always Sometimes Monsters unwisely suggests that we should sentimentalize our bad choices. No matter what sex or racial group you choose, you play as a writer who desperately pines for an ex one year after breaking up. The quest is to travel across the country in order to arrive at your ex’s wedding. As this aspiring but lazy writer, you face poverty, hunger, and preposterous moments of decision making.

The story quickly exposes its take on life as a sham. For example, if you take a job at an advertising company, every member of the company asks you for advice on how to deal with a recently fired and unstable employee. Another scenario involves a friend who is hopelessly addicted to heroin; to get medical treatment for him, you have to intimidate a doctor through violence. In another segment, you might become a major player in a conflict between a union leader and mayoral candidate (nevermind that you might have slept on dirty mattresses in alleys nights before). While these situations might create a lot of intriguing material, their utter ridiculousness do not support the game’s conceit that we operate in a morally undefined world.

Several critics have praised Always Sometimes Monsters for offering characters of different sexes and racial groups, but the diversity is mainly there to impress you as options. The game shares virtually nothing about social reality or identity. By largely reducing race, for instance, to insults from unlikable, unrelatable non-playable characters, Always Sometimes Monsters puts the blame on random individuals rather than systems of oppression that can affect anyone’s perception or behavior (see Mainichi). Vagabond Dog’s approach to gender and race strokes the egos of people who think they’re above discrimination and prejudice.

Always Sometimes Monsters also fails at exploring survival and work. The game offers the pretense that you need to work to buy food so that you can eat for stamina, but more than halfway through the game, I learned you can survive fine without eating at all. More significantly, Vagabond Dog doesn’t show an understanding of labor. Even though the game might lead you to do annoying jobs for measly paychecks, the narrative fails to touch on our conflicted existence as natural laborers like the superior Actual Sunlight. At the very least, it’s an insult to writers that the protagonist completely pissed away a lucrative opportunity to write.

Indeed, the general immaturity of the game reveals a lack of seriousness about the subject matter that it wants you to take seriously. Early in the game, you can pick up dogs and give them to a dubious institution for money. But later on, you might wind up boxing one of the abused dogs in a ring! Moreover, the game’s obsession with feces further illustrates that its moral sermon is better suited for a toilet than a diverse audience.

The most disappointing aspect of Always Sometimes Monsters is how flippantly it views its most poignant scenes. In the first city, you have the opportunity to have dinner with a lonely old woman who shares stories about her dead husband, but your character takes no lasting wisdom or respect from the visit. Even more disappointing is when the game raises points about spirituality, redemption, and providence before promptly forgetting them. When a preacher asks you if you believe, you can say “Yes,” which then places a victorious car race in the context of a miracle. The game’s subsequent scenes, however, do not acknowledge this experience. Always Sometimes Monsters’ smug dishonesty is a sin of storytelling.