Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (Wii U) – Review

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Fire Emblem has been my favourite Nintendo franchise for years now. We bought a 3DS to play Fire Emblem Awakening, and we bought a Wii U this summer to play Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. During development the game was often referred to as Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, suggesting it would be a mashup of these two wildly popular Japanese RPG franchises. In the end, as the hashtag suggests, Fire Emblem is more a flavour here than anything else: sure, there are Fire Emblem characters and gameplay devices, but don’t buy this game expecting anything like a standard Fire Emblem experience. Instead, what you’llĀ  get is much more akin to a Persona game (it was developed by Persona developer Atlus, after all, rather than Intelligent Systems). But don’t let that put you off. TMS #FE is one of the most enjoyable JRPGs in years, and I had an absolute blast playing it from start to finish.

I had actually never played a Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game before, so the mechanics and style of this game were something of a novelty to me. The first thing to note is the distinctive setting and storyline. TMS is an unashamed celebration of Japanese popular culture, and the main story sees you control a group of teen pop idols. In the UK that would be the worst thing ever, but what’s remarkable here is that the game manages to make the pop idols thoroughly likable. Not only that, but even their managers and trainers are, for the most part, pretty decent and entertaining people. It’s quite an achievement.

The main character is high-school student Itsuki Aoi. Itsuki can’t really sing or act but he certainly knows how to make friends and bring out the best in others. Itsuki is joined by several other aspiring musicians and actors who for the most part are well-written and pretty fun to hang out with. There’s only one real exception in the form of Barry, a former platinum-selling American Death Metal musician who gave up his career to become an Otaku and who is obsessed with little girls’ anime. Lame. Your troupe of artists (who, of course, don’t just sing but also act and model as well) get caught up in a sinister plot to destroy the world. Basically, demons (called ‘Mirages’) are invading our dimension in order to consume people’s ‘Performa’, which is the embodiment of confidence and the performing arts. Once people lose their Performa they become depressed, mope around, and eventually die. Much of the game revolves around returning people’s stolen Performa, which often involves some kind of minor fetch quest followed by a boss fight and some kind of awesome musical performance or comedy routine.

The writing in Tokyo Mirage Sessions is consistently excellent and often very funny. There are a welter of side quests, including several personal quests for each party member. These often put you in unusual situations, and generally revolve around using The Power of Friendship to inspire other people and help them reach their potential. It’s a well-worn trope in anime and Japanese RPGs, to be sure, but here it’s handled with a sincerity and vivacious panache that will win over all but the most hardened cynic. I also wondered about the subtext: ‘Mirages’, many of whom are actually video game characters, come to our world and prey on people’s potential, causing them to lose confidence in themselves and the wider world. How many of us have seen this happen to people we know (or even ourselves) when becoming a little too immersed in video games? However, Tokyo Mirage Sessions shows that it’s perfectly possible to create video games that inspire and bring wholesome joy, rather than sucking the life and/or money out of you. It stands in the best tradition of video games.

The game’s graphics are colourful and the characters are well-rendered and animated, and most of the environments are vibrant. The game’s dungeons do feature some very flat backgrounds, but then they are all set in inter-dimensional space. Nobody plays the Wii U expecting amazing graphics, but TMS does a great job with its art style and design. At first, when I saw T. playing it I thought the graphics looked somewhat primitive; but as soon as I started playing myself, I stopped worrying about that. It just sucks you in.

As well as the colourful and fresh visual style, TMS features a pretty amazing soundtrack. There’s plenty of J-Pop, as you would expect given the subject matter, but also a number of rock and electronica-inflected themes, and even some jazz. It’s surprisingly varied and a major part of the game’s attraction. There are several stand-out themes and some of them rank with the best RPG music I’ve heard in years. Only fitting for a game which revolves around the music industry.

There is a great deal of conversation and exposition, and Itsuki occasionally gets to make choices in the form of dialogue options and so on. This is mainly played for laughs though, as you can’t really change the direction of the plot. Most of the actual gameplay revolves around exploring several hub areas in Tokyo, before entering ‘Idolaspheres’ which serve as dungeons which you have to explore and where you fight semi-random encounters. You see generic ghostly creatures as you explore; Itsuki can whack them with his sword for an advantage before running into them to start an encounter. Fights are a turn-based affair where each character and enemy can attack during each round. You have a selection of physical and magical attacks, and by targeting enemy weaknesses you can trigger ‘Sessions’ which cause your party members to attack in turn, giving you free hits and building up combos. This way you can also build up your ‘special’ meter, which allows you to unleash devastating ‘Special Performances’, and you also eventually unlock Duo Arts where your party members attack in unison.

The combat strikes a great balance between strategy and spectacle, and it is pretty well-paced for the most part. Even on Normal difficulty your party members can easily die if the enemy targets their weaknesses, so you’re forced to plan and use your entire team. Your attacks, and especially special performances and duo arts, often look incredible and are a real pleasure to behold. Your teammates tend to be quite talkative in battle and the voice acting is really good. Even though it’s all in Japanese, and unfortunately none of the in-battle dialogue is subtitled, I still found myself enjoying some of the silly phrases spouted by Touma and the rest of the gang.

It can be very silly to see two teenage girls doing a song-and-dance routine in front of some weird monster in order to cause a huge amount of damage to it, but it’s always fun. Generally speaking, combat is not too difficult if you do all the side missions; there is one very challenging boss fight about halfway through the game, but once you unlock the gamut of special abilities combat is not too frustrating. This is relatively forgiving as JRPGs go. Unfortunately, although your party will eventually grow to well beyond the three-person limit you can have in combat at any one time, Itsuki always has to be in the party.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions sold very badly, which is no surprise I guess considering the low install base of the Wii U but still something of a shame. I’m aware there was some controversy over ‘censorship’ of its Western release, which saw the removal or adaptation of some more revealing outfits from the female characters. I’m opposed to censorship in general, but that said, I don’t think it can really be said to have detracted from the overall experience in this case. There’s no question that the pervier side of anime can put some people off engaging with it, so I don’t have a problem with pre-empting potential criticism in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Sensibilities about these things are different in Japan than they are in Europe and North America, and a couple of bikinis wouldn’t have added to this game. If anything, the lack of fanservice adds to the game’s whole positive and upbeat aesthetic.

Another criticism of Tokyo Mirage Sessions that has done the rounds is that the game is heavily based on ‘anime tropes’. This is true to an extent, but I suspect a lot of people dogpiling on internet forums about this simply have no idea what tropes are. Every production of popular culture is based around tropes, either from within that culture or borrowed from another one. Tropes can be adhered to or subverted, but they’re always there, and it’s completely fallacious to condemn an artwork merely because it ‘uses tropes’. That said, Tokyo Mirage Sessions sticks quite closely to some familiar anime and JRPG tropes, especially The Power of Friendship. But its execution is so good, and the experience of playing the game so damn positive, that it’s self-defeating as well as wrongheaded to avoid the game on this basis. This is a game that’s definitely a force for good in the world. Although I came expecting more Fire Emblem, I’m delighted to have been introduced to Atlus’s world of video games. TMS may have sold badly, but since finishing it I’ve bought at least half a dozen SMT and Persona games in preparation for the release of Persona 5 next year. Bring it on.

9/10

 

 

The Golden Bough (book) – Review

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The Golden Bough is a famous work, and with it Sir James Frazer pretty much founded the school of ‘comparative anthropology’. It is a massive text which he revised and re-published several times; the abridged edition I read clocks in at over 800 pages, so it’s not a quick read. For the most part, it is relatively readable, so long as you accept that you won’t be familiar with all of Frazer’s references. Essentially, what he tried to do in The Golden Bough was to survey primitive magical rituals across the globe and the span of human history, and he incorporated a dizzying amount of material from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.

Frazer’s central idea is that there is a level of consistency across the magical beliefs and ritual practices of peoples around the world which suggests they stemmed from a common approach to understanding the natural world and in particular the passage of the seasons. Many of the rites, he suggests, have the character of practices designed to influence or control the earth’s natural cycle, or at a later stage of economic development, to boost agricultural production. Parts of the book deal with quite ghoulish subjects, particularly human sacrifice, which Frazer identifies as a common practice across many agricultural civilizations, in every part of the world. Some of these will be familiar to readers from movies and popular culture (cf. The Wicker Man).

Frazer has quite a pedagogical and accessible style, considering the challenging nature of his material, and he also has a dry sense of humour which brightens things up. Of course, as he was writing in the 1890s-1910s, there is a certain amount of what would be regarded now as politically incorrect terminology. But Frazer fundamentally has a humanist viewpoint and doesn’t take a racialist view of the world, instead highlighting the similarities between peoples and cultures at different stages of historical development. His writing style features the typically Victorian method of providing page after page of examples to illustrate his points, which can make for tiresome reading on occasion, and I would say to anyone considering reading this that it’s fine to skip forward from time to time. I read it cover-to-cover myself, but I wouldn’t have lost anything by cutting out large sections.

One of the reasons I was interested in The Golden Bough was because I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which takes this book as its starting point. I kind of wish I had read this first, as it would have helped me understand the context of The White Goddess a bit better. The Golden Bough is more readable, comprehensible, and responsible than The White Goddess, which has its points of interest but is ultimately a very self-indulgent work. Frazer was criticized for one of his main theses, though, to do with the role of corn-gods and ‘dying and resurrected deities’ in Asia Minor and Greece and Rome. This section was probably the least interesting part of the book, leaving aside the academic issues which I’m not really able to comment on.

One of the best services Frazer does here is how he documents pagan festivals which were widely practised around the world, and shows how they have been subsumed into common religious festivals and other events that persist to this day. Some of this was highly controversial when he wrote the book, particularly his treatment of the major festivals associated with the death of Christ. Festivals like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween have a heritage going back at least 5,000 years, and probably a lot longer; they were co-opted by various religions in order to try and gain legitimacy by associating their mythology with well-established, common practices. There is a fundamental relationship between our intellectual and emotional lives, the mode of production, and the natural world, which urges us to celebrate or commemorate at certain times of the year. It’s far too common, if not universal, to be a coincidence.

Frazer’s book and overall method is deeply unfashionable in academic circles today: the whole idea of shedding light on different cultural practices by comparing them to one another is looked on with scorn by many who would argue that by doing so we lose the ‘singularity’ of specific practices by incorporating them into a ‘Eurocentric’ model. At its worst, this school of thought holds that the mere act of such comparison is itself harmful, causing psychic damage to the people whose culture you are comparing. There is no doubt that Frazer’s approach was Eurocentric, and that there are significant problems with his method and many of his conclusions. However, anyone who can read this book and not be moved by the common humanity its pages reveal is either a pseudo-radical poseur or a jaded cynic. Frazer not only points out the similar cultural practices among diverse people around the world, he also begins to unveil the functional basis of ritual and mythology, which helped lay the basis for later materialist understandings of cultural behaviour.

7/10

We stand upon the foundation reared by the generations that have gone before, and we can but dimly realise the painful and prolonged efforts which it has cost humanity to struggle up to the point, no very exalted one after all, which we have reached. Our gratitude is due to the nameless and forgotten toilers, whose patient thought and active exertions have largely made us what we are. The amount of new knowledge which one age, certainly which one man, can add to the common store is small, and it argues stupidity or dishonesty, besides ingratitude, to ignore the heap while vaunting the few grains which it may have been our privilege to add to it. There is indeed little danger at present of undervaluing the contributions which modern times and even classical antiquity have made to the general advancement of our race. But when we pass these limits, the case is different. Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the only recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways. Yet of the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession of their race since the beginning of the world. But reflection and enquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we thought most our own, and that their errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we ourselves may one day stand in need of: cum excusatione itaque veteres audiendi sunt.” p. 218-9

The Sopranos (season four) – Review

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Doesn’t this look like fun?

The first two seasons of The Sopranos rank as some of the best television I’ve seen, but season three represented a marked decline in quality. This was understandable, as the real-life death of one of the central actors caused a major story arc to be aborted. Season three therefore felt like there was something missing, and secondary storylines were made the centre of attention. I hoped that season four would see the show regroup and move forward with renewed purpose.

On the contrary, I was sorely disappointed to find that season four is significantly worse than season three. The thirteen episodes see Tony’s world begin to fall apart, as bad decisions and the stresses and strains of the mobster lifestyle take an increasing toll on his family and personal relationships. Tony’s character doesn’t necessarily develop a great deal in this season, but he’s still written as a fairly deep and rounded character so is always compelling. Sadly, the same can’t really be said for anyone else. Tony’s wife, Carmela, falls for one of Tony’s henchmen, and much of the season follows her emotional plight as she’s tortured by an impossible dream of romance and confronted daily by her growing hatred for her husband. The relationship between Tony and Carmela has been an emotional center across the four seasons so far, but the dramatic payoff from their marital problems is really lacking. In part, this stems from something of a ‘Betty Draper’ syndrome: Carmela is by now pretty horrible to almost everyone, not just Tony, and despite her depression and the humiliation she suffers from her husband’s constant philandering she does enjoy the material fruits of his illegal activities, which of course come at no small cost to his victims. In general, Carmela’s character is just not written with enough depth or subtlety to really imbue her with the kind of sympathy which we should feel in the circumstances.

At least Carmela’s behaviour is largely consistent across the season, though. The same can’t really be said for most of the supporting cast, and Tony’s business associates often seem to flip-flop between different personalities. At times it’s as if someone mixed up the actors’ lines, like when one wiseguy who had been taking a hard line on a business deal suddenly changes his mind, while another who had been the voice of compromise starts playing hardball. There are also some poorly-conceived storylines, such as the infamous episode about ‘Columbus Day’. One of the few bright sparks is Ralphie, played by Joe Pantoliano, who despite his brutally misogynistic and violent personality is responsible for most of the season’s humour and lighter moments. These rare occasions are a welcome contrast to the procession of misery and manipulative behaviour which constitutes most of the rest of season four.

One of the curious things about this season is the comparative lack of police interest in Tony and his New Jersey crew. The police are a constant presence, sitting in cars outside Tony’s house, businesses and so on, but their approach is largely passive. There’s one exception, as the cops try to recruit a mole within Tony’s network, but by the end of the season this storyline inexplicably fizzles out. Perhaps most disappointingly of all, Tony’s psychotherapy sessions with Dr Melfi become less and less insightful, covering the same ground ad nauseam, until Tony eventually decides to give them up. It’s a kind of metaphor for the way the whole show loses its sense of sympathy for its own characters, as well as the insight into human compulsions which characterized the first few seasons. While season three was a disappointment, season four is downright poor, and its existence undermines the case of those who would argue The Sopranos is ‘the best TV show ever’. If I didn’t already have the box set, I might well give up now.

5/10