Persona 5 PS4 Review

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From the very first introduction and menu,Persona 5 leaps onto the screen with style and confidence that is for the most part held throughout the lengthy 80+hour experience. Not relying on mere flashy aesthetics, Persona 5 possesses a substantial and compelling narrative and an excellent turn based combat system, and a surprisingly interesting social life simulator element.

Without spoiling or going into excessive detail about the narrative that is the cornerstone of this lengthy JRPG experience, the basic premise of Persona 5 is the following: you play as a transfer student with a criminal record based on a false accusation that gets transferred to a Tokyo school called Shujin Academy. However, you become imbued with a strange and mystical power that allows you to access the Metaverse, which is an alternate, physical dimension of people’s subconsciousness,  either as a collective unconsciousness in the case of Mementos, a procedurally generated dungeon, or Palaces, which are for individuals with deeply distorted desires, moreso than the small fry in mementos.  Once your merry band of Phantom Thieves is formed, you set about stealing people’s hearts in this realm in the hope of reforming society. It’s a wonderful premise that has a rebellious, idealistic edge yet balances this with drama, positivity and doesn’t shy away from the implications of it’s own premise. There are also plenty of moments of levity and comic relief, which hit more often than they miss and rarely feels inappropriate or as if it’s trying to convey a sense of ironic detachment. The utter sincerity of the whole thing is part of what makes it such a joy to experience.

What makes the story work as well as it does is the characters. From Ryuji,a former track team member with an impulsive and rebellious attitude, or Ann who is a kind hearted beauty,Futaba the shut in, or Makoto the honour student and Yusuke the slightly pretentious artist. These are just some of the characters in your party and they all have excellent chemistry, which is helped by quality, believable voice acting.  All these characters are more than they initially seem and their individual storylines are all worthwhile. There are also non party member confidants, such as Tae Takemi, the punk town doctor, Sojiro your legal guardian, Kawakami the homeroom teacher, Ohya the alcoholic journalist, Mishima the fanboy or Yoshida the washed up politician to name a few. You will want to try and experience as much of these substories as you can too as they offer substantial bonuses for combat abilities, Personas and generally increasing your power.

This ties into the social life simulator aspect, which is more than mere interludes and are important to the storytelling and overall flow of the game. You can also increase five social stats through certain activities, such as knowledge through studying or answering questions in class correctly. These are necessary, as a skill check, in order to progress certain confidant substories. Everything feeds into each other in this core loop, and while this all might sound mundane, as part of the overall experience, it elevates the narrative and dungeon crawling. The main negative of the social stats for me is the interface as the progression between level one and level two of a particular stat is not terribly clear.

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Most of the female confidants also have romance options that can be taken at the conclusion of their substory, and while it possible to have multiple options with no consequence (unless you do new game+), I went with only Makoto and found that to be grounded, satisfying and heartwarming. Although it doesn’t directly have impact on the main story as far as I can notice, it is still presented in such a way that adds extra weight to proceedings. It is deftly handled and not clumsy like many popular western action RPGs that include romance options, or a checkbox element like in many Hollywood action films.

The writing overall, then, is of a high quality. But there are two substantial irritations that hold it back somewhat. The first is that it can be incredibly exposition heavy, especially in the first 10 hours, which can cause certain scenes to drag on just a little bit. The second issue is that when entering a Palace for the first time, a party member will comment on what the Palace represents even though in the lead up, and from the visual of the Palace itself, it is blindingly obvious what it represents. This kind of exposition feels clumsy and unnecessary. As I hinted at previously, the game also possesses it’s fair share of anime cliches (there’s even a section that is pretty much a beach episode) but none of it feels like filler, nor does it feel cringeworthy or rote.

In regards to the combat, it is pretty traditional turn based JRPG fare but with a few tweaks of it’s own that keep it from feeling slow or tedious. For one, exploiting elemental weaknesses of enemies provides more than just a damage bonus, but also enables you to have an extra turn and these can be chained when facing multiple enemies. Once all enemies are downed, you enemies are held up and you have multiple options: an all out attack for massive damage, or you can mug them for cash or items or you can acquire them as a pokemon Persona of your own. There is a gigantic roster of Personas, ranging from small scale supernatural beings, such as faeries, succubi, jack frost, slimes to penis monsters, a risque Lilith and even deities such as Dionysus, Kali, Thor and Anubis. All of these can be combined in some way to create more powerful pokemon Personas. Visually, all the mythical entities the game represents are all strikingly presented in ways you would expect but also in ways that are unexpected and they range from cute, to monstrous, threatening and sometimes even a bit arousing. In fact, sexual imagery and themes are very prominent here, but even with things such as obvious penis monsters, fetish-looking catsuits and a persona that channels a bit of femdom, it never feels excessive or juvenile.

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Aside from this, you will be using your usual buffs, debuffs, guns and regular attacks to defeat enemies as you would in any other JRPG. The combat interface is also bold and stylish without sacrificing user friendliness and responsiveness. The overall feel is slick and fast paced. You can also give your party members automated tactics to fit them into tank/healer, etc roles in combat but I stuck with direct commands, so I am unsure of how good the party AI is when left to their own devices.

There are also a total of five difficulty levels and I played on normal, which I feel offered a fair challenge the vast majority of the game, but on the whole it wasn’t terribly difficult most of the time. But I didn’t feel under-levelled, nor did I feel the need to compulsively grind and over-level on this difficulty setting which for me is a plus in any JRPG, especially long ones. I imagine on Hard and above this would become a necessity. There is also Easy mode, and an even easier mode called Safe mode, which I imagine would deprive the game of any challenge to the point where you might as well not even be playing the game. If you just want to experience the story, there’s an ongoing anime adaptation for that.

Palaces themselves are increasingly complex dungeon crawls, all with varied themes and striking visuals from a medieval looking castle, an appropriately garish museum or an Egyptian pyramid with a digital touch, everything feels well designed. However, there is also a “stealth” element which is just hiding behind bits of obvious cover. This can be used to slip past enemies, but only sometimes since corridors are quite tight and their patrol routes and AI are very basic. Usually it’s best to use for ambushing enemies, which gives you a leg up by guaranteeing your party the first turn. Trying to slip past enemies can feel a bit clunky and on more than one occasion resulted in me getting ambushed by enemies instead.

The overall look and feel of Persona 5, while not technically impressive, looks stunning nevertheless due to it’s bold,anime-inspired art direction that makes the fantastical worlds a marvel to experience and even the more mundane areas of Shujin Academy or Shibuya are pleasant to look at.  The only downer is parts of the procedural generated Mementos levels since they can look quite dull at first, although each area does look slightly different and becomes a bit more interesting to look at towards the end. Cutscenes are excellent too, especially the 2D anime cutscenes, which exhibit excellent production value and are always a joy to watch on the occasion they show up.

The music is similarly excellent, with funky, upbeat and high energy battle music, especially during the final stretch of a Palace dungeon. All the other music is on point as well at utilised very well to match the tone of a particular scene. However I do wish there was a little more variety in the score, especially in battles, mainly because of the game’s length but also more unique boss themes, at least for those in the main story, would be appreciated.

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To wrap this review up, Persona 5 stands as simply one of the best JRPGs around and shows that the turn based combat typical to the genre is not dated, boring or slow at all. Plus, the narrative and characters are compelling and worth the emotional and time investment. I laughed, I cheered and I even almost shed a tear or two at certain points.  The storytelling is mature but also sincere and uplifting, while never being shy of embracing it’s darker aspects. My heart has been captured by this band of Phantom Thieves.

9/10

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(Book Review) Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

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Author: Anne Applebaum
Publisher: Doubleday, New York
Price: AU$37 from Book Depository
Edition: 1st Hardback edition. Paperback edition releases in mid 2018.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine is a stunning and compelling work on the famine that struck Ukraine between 1932-1934. The central thesis of the book is this: that the famine in this time was not a normal famine and was instead created and intensified as deliberate policy on the part of Stalin to crush the vestiges of the national movement in Ukraine and for the liquidation of the kulaks.

The trajectory of the work begins us with the significance of Ukrainian national identity and the independence movement  and peasant rebellions that marked the country, which had long felt the pressures of Tsarist Russification policies, as a hotbed of anti-bolshevik resistance from the very beginning of their regime. After this, we get an overview of the civil war period, of how the countryside was brutalized by both the recently formed Red Army, as well as the White Army’s habit of requisitioning grain from peasants. A particular sub-point I found here was that Applebaum ascribes Denikin, a White general, as being too blinded by the dismissive attitudes towards Ukrainians, to properly utilise the local populations in the fight against Bolshevism and thus as one of the reasons the Whites lost the civil war.  Another faction of the civil war that I had previously not known about, known as the Black army under Makhno, who were essentially anarchists, provided interesting reading.

From here,we move on to the famine of the civil war. This is a fundamental and important part of the text to understand Anne’s central thesis as it lays the groundwork for the distinction between genuine famine caused by war, bad weather and disastrous economic policies versus one created with the intent to weaken or destroy the population. Here we see how the nascent Bolshevik regime under Lenin, tried to squeeze Ukraine for all it’s grain, but as anyone who has studied the bolshevik revolution will know, international aid was allowed and indeed requested by the government to aid at risk populations. However much of it could have still been avoided without the disastrous set of policies known as ‘War Communism’ and the continued export of grain whilst the countryside was starving, a policy that would continue well into the Stalinist era, for the purposes of purchasing industrial equipment from abroad. We also see how the organs of the regime, primarily the Chekists, engineered class warfare and pushed the concept of the kulaks as the class enemy, but as Applebaum explains, the definition of kulak deliberately became a very loose word, liberally used to describe any peasant who might not have been well off, but might have had two cows instead of one or simply disagreed with or resisted bolshevik ideology.

Further on, we have multiple chapters dedicated to collectivization policies and resistance (and compliance) with them. In these chapters especially we are shown how brutal and coercive the bolsheviks were in implementing their policies towards the peasantry. We see the paranoia, the arrests, how the secret police (known at this time as the OGPU) worked and presented their findings to the party. We see how neighbours were often turned against each other, and also how the Ukrainian intelligentsia, who were not communist approved, or were at least under suspicion by them, were often targeted, harassed and liquidated. But Anne presents a nuanced account of events, especially in the following chapters about the Holodomor itself, where there were people at various levels in the Ukrainian Communist Party, as well as the party in Moscow, who showed dissent, especially towards collectivization and the unrealistic grain fulfilment quotas. While this book focuses on, and is generally sympathetic to Ukrainians, those who suffered in other regions of the USSR, such as those in Kazakhstan and the Russian heartland are given mention, this book isn’t Russophobic and the blame is firmly assigned to Stalin himself and the Bolshevik regime more generally, although it is noted that the peasantry often viewed those committing the crimes against them as foreigners, typically Russians or Jews in their eyes. Moreover, we see how people actively collaborated with the bolshevik policy, those in Ukraine and how people were incentivized to turn against each other. The line between perpetrator and victim is shown to at times be a blurry and difficult distinction to make, as the same person can often be both.

These chapters on the collectivization process, and the famine itself are incredibly harrowing even though they are presented in an un sentimental fashion, especially when it talks about the process of starvation and how the soviet authorities created the situation. Roads were blocked, villages were blacklisted, aid was denied, peasants were not allowed to trade, especially if you were not on a collective farm. At first there was resistance but the population was starved into submission. Activist brigades regularly raided homes and searched thoroughly for every last morsel of food. This is why the early chapters on previous famines were so important: the character of famines were clearly different and no genuine famine has representatives of the state actively taking away food from those in need of it. The crisis, engineered as it was, continued to worsen, lead to chaos in the cities, the absolute devastation of the Ukrainian countryside and the degradation of the population into emaciated husks, driven to madness and some to the point of cannibalism. These parts are particularly horrifying and distressing, but crucial, to understanding the absolute horror of this time. The book as a whole is a very depressing read and is not for the faint of heart.

After these chapters, we see the aftermath of the famine and how the authorities covered up the famine, both abroad and domestically. But the cover up abroad couldn’t have succeeded without a press corp in Moscow at the time that is shy of being outright accused of cowardice by the author, as it is said that they were generally aware of what was happening but kept their mouths shut because of coercion. As well as statesmen in Western European countries and America who were mislead or kept quiet, especially British and American authorities, who wanted to maintain positive diplomatic ties with the USSR to keep Hitler in check. These statesmen, especially the Stalin fanboy, Roosevelt, should be utterly condemned by posterity for their cowardice and refusal to simply speak up about this.

The final chapters of the book conclude with a solid discussion and overview of the historiography of the Holodomor and how it is remembered in Ukraine, Russia and abroad during the Second World War and after, being utilised propagandistically in Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and as a part of modern Ukrainian national identity that helps justify it’s grievances towards Russia as well as sovereignty. And like Solzhenitsyn said about Bolshevism and gulag breaking “the back of Russia”, Bolshevism did the same to Ukraine and it explains the current state of things in that country. The final chapter, an epilogue is primarily about this, helping to summarise the text and place in the context on contemporary Russo-Ukrainian relations, offering a fairly pointed and convincing criticism of the Russian Federation’s attitude towards the Holodomor and current policy towards Ukraine. This must be the chapter that fires up negative amazon reviews of the book that claim it is a conspiracy made to subvert Russia in the same way the excellent film, The Death of Stalin, was accused of by Russian government officials, which are honestly laughable accusations that miss the point.

Now that I have given a brief, but nowhere near extensive overview of some of the main points of the book, what did I think overall? As you can probably tell, I found Red Famine compelling, convincing and worthy of praise. Applebaum’s prose, while some might find dry, is generally excellent as it is uncluttered, readable and perfectly structured, with social, political and economic history seamlessly woven together. Events, individuals, institutions are described and analysed well, without excessive editorialising or moralizing and everything is very easy to follow. The central thesis is well supported by rigorous research that pulls from plenty of primary sources, such as diaries and memoirs, OGPU archives, Soviet archives, cultural works and the most up to date scholarship from Ukrainian sources from inside Ukraine itself or research institutes in the West, as well as pulling from many scholarly works on Soviet history. Familiar names like Richard Pipes pop up from time to time and Robert Conquest, something of a pioneer on the subject whose work Harvest of Sorrow (1986) was one of the early works on the subject in english, is given it’s just due. I actually considered purchasing Harvest of Sorrow, but decided on Red Famine instead, given it is more up to date, being released in 2017.

The subject of the Holodomor, in the English speaking world at least, is semi obscure. At least, as far as I’m aware, the general public lacks awareness of the subject beyond vague and ephemeral anti-communism. It definitely doesn’t have the traction and imprint in the mainstream anglophone consciousness that holocaust narratives do, especially since I have yet to see a major hollywood film on the subject. IMDB lists about 10 films that deal with the subject, all of them obscure. Indeed, the general public is typically ignorant of Soviet history and the region in general. One occasionally comes across those that still believe that Russia is communist, or don’t know who Stalin was, for instance. Hopefully works like Red Famine can generate more awareness of this terrible tragedy and improve understanding of Russia and Ukraine, as well as how states, in the past as well as now, deal with dissent.

That said, considering the academic tone of the work, I do not think this will have wide appeal to the general public in Anglophone countries, but it should appeal to anyone with an interest in Soviet history, international relation, as well as students studying the Bolshevik revolution in high school or any study on the Soviet Union more generally. The first 100 pages or so would be especially useful for those studying the Bolshevik revolution and civil war up to 1924 and would be of great interest for history teachers to include in their lesson plans, class discussions or as suggested reading to curious students. Additionally, those who study genocides might find this work valuable. But my hope is that awareness of this tragedy isn’t relegated to the relative obscurity of academia or students simply looking to impress their teachers and examiners, but for a genuine understanding of the past and present state of Ukraine and Russia, as well as the capacity for human suffering and cruelty. It would definitely make a great companion to The Gulag Archipelago, despite the different focus. Red Famine is a brilliant work of scholarship that is presented perfectly. It is essential reading.

Dying Light Enhanced Edition PC Review

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Do you remember Dead Island? That open world zombie game that had everyone hyped and then left everyone with the taste of disappointment because of how janky and underdeveloped it felt? Well in comes Dying Light, which is a lot like Dead Island, with the notable difference that it’s actually fun to play.

So what does Dying Light retain from Dead Island and what differentiates it? To start with, the setting is different. Instead of the zombie outbreak taking place on a resort island, the outbreak this time takes place in the fictional city of Harran, a city that has the feel of being vaguely European and Middle Eastern in it’s people and aesthetic. Or Brazilian, I am not quite sure. The first zone, the slums, evokes images of favelas, whilst the second zone, the old town as the name suggests, provides the charm of a European old town. It is quite the aesthetic shift once you reach it, but it is nice.

After the outbreak has been occurring for some time, you are dropped into the midst of it as Kyle Crane, an American operative working for an organization called the GRE in order to obtain some material and persons of interest. Throughout the game, Kyle finds himself heavily invested in the plight of the people stuck in the city. It’s quite a bland plot really and extremely predictable, as pretty much every twist can be spotted a mile away so it has no impact. Additionally, Kyle Crane himself is bland and becomes attached to the people of Harran unbelievably quickly, like someone who falls in love because that person smiled at them one time. This also includes a romance subplot within the main story that in addition to being forced, is also very unfulfilling. Kyle Crane is attached to these people but the game fails to make me care on an emotional level. So the story is clearly not the main attraction here. The main expansion, The Following has a similarly generic plot that is similarly bland even though it had the potential to be a fun b-movie kind of narrative.

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Some quests can be funny and interesting but these are the exception

In terms of how the game plays, the two fundamental aspects are combat and free running parkour (think Assassins Creed but in first person). The parkour works surprisingly well and is assisted by strong overworld design that facilitates this freedom of movement. It controls wonderfully and intuitively, making it fun to just run around the levels. But it is also very useful and is your most important tool in the early game, since enemies are plentiful, they hit hard and fast and your weapons are, at least at the start, about as effective as butter knives trying to fell a tree.  This makes for a very exciting start to the game in terms of the parkour mechanics, but an at times frustrating combat experience. I also found the ability where you can use an enemies head as a jumping platform to be endlessly entertaining and useful.

The combat really shines in the mid to late game when your weapons start dealing serious damage and you’ve got a good amount of ability upgrades under your belt. Enemies still hit pretty hard throughout the game, which makes me suspect there’s some level scaling at play in both loot and enemy damage output and they can dodge you, even the zombies. And since you have a stamina bar to worry about, you can’t just mash the left mouse button and hope to be effective, so there is at least some thought required in the combat. Early on, I found an effective tactic to cheese enemies by using the slide tackle to down enemies and then wail on their face with my equipped weapon. Drop kicking is also fun, but less effective than the slide tackle. But when you’ve got those higher levels of weapons, the combat becomes extra fun when your machete cuts heads off in one hit and the head flies off and blood gushes out of their neck stump. Or when they have a hammer smashed face or are bisected by a scythe or sword, it’s great stuff.

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Around the half way point, guns become more common, but they are a mixed bag. On one hand, they’re extremely effective as you can now have some range and easily pull of head shots that are one hit kills against normal zombies and smaller specials, such as a spitter that looks like the jockey from Left 4 Dead 2, or regular human enemies. One drawback, however, is that the noise of attracts more zombies to your position, so while it is effective crowd control, it still brings all the boys to the yard. Plus guns don’t have degradation. You’re going to want to keep guns as a staple of your equipped weapons. But on the other hand, the shooting just feels awkward and clunky at times, especially in the more linear main mission levels that involve shootouts against human enemies. Plus there are no abilities in the upgrade tree for guns, which is a missed opportunity.

Another main feature of the game is how night shift runs are quite dangerous,with creatures such as Volatiles (which look like discount bloodsuckers) which will fuck you up if they catch you so it is best not to take them head on in most instances. I usually avoided nights despite the award rate of double exp simply because being caught by volatiles was annoying. But they can still be fun. It’s up to you except for the occasional mission that requires you to go out at night.

In regards to this upgrade tree, the game uses a simple leveling system where you level up combat or parkour through simply engaging in them and thankfully, they are separate exp pools in addition to the general ‘Survivor’ skill tree that levels up through completing quests. It is a good an easily understandable system. The skill trees themselves avoid the common pitfalls many other games like these have of being dominated by passive abilities and instead offer a good balance between passive and active skills. The general progression is very well done and the player going from scrub to death on legs is satisfying and feels earned.

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Early area in the Slums zone

The Following expansion also adds driving, which has it’s own upgrade tree and the feeling of driving, depending on how much you’ve upgraded it and it’s overall condition, range from unwieldy to cathartic as you ram zombies in the countryside and create roadkill. I wouldn’t recommend driving at night until you’ve got a good amount of upgrades because being jumped by volatiles, especially off road, is incredibly irritating. But overall the driving is a fun way to compensate for the parkour being less relevant in a rural setting.

Crafting is also very simple in that all you need is a blueprint and the requisite materials and base weapon if applicable and you can craft a new item. Weapons have two types of upgrades, the first being ones that add durability or higher damage and the other being elemental effects. You don’t need to do this with every weapon as there are many that are effective in their default states. The designs of the weapons can are usually pretty grounded and can look like they would be practical or semi practical in any other kind of zombie media.

In regards to the visuals and performance, the art direction is quite strong as I have mentioned before with the different zones and they are good on a technical level too. Zombies are detailed and have excellent animation where sometimes even their vestigial humanity will show in combat and look like they are briefly yielding. There is also a good amount of variation in what each zombie looks like and while not all are unique, feelings of excessive repetition are minimal. Gore effects are satisfyingly implemented which is crucial for this kind of game and the lighting is phenomenal and the deep, expressive orange hues of twilight are the most impressive along with the immediate coldness and blackness of night. It also performs well at 1440p at high preset using at least a GTX 970.

There is perhaps more minutae of the game I can discuss, but I better wrap this up. I bought Dying Light on sale for about $24 USD and played about 30 hours, the vast majority of it being highly enjoyable in spite of my critiques discussed in this review. It’s not the perfect zombie game, but most of it’s mechanics work well together, the world design is fantastic and the soundtrack even has some good tracks, especially those with more synths. At around that price, this enhanced edition of Dying Light comes highly recommended to anyone looking for a fun zombie game that can be played solo or with friends.

7.5/10