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Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness (Sony PlayStation 4)

Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness review

Review by Clark A.

Famed writer of anime and visual novels, Gen Urobuchi, has a penchant for dark, perverse themes. Those familiar with the man’s portfolio may label that a gross understatement as his works range from deconstructions of the innocent magical girl subgenre to relentlessly grotesque Lovecraftian horror. Though Urobuchi’s output is consistently thought-provoking, 2012’s Psycho-Pass anime saw him collaborating with others and harnessing those scriptwriting talents to muse over something more palatable to the masses: morality. Utilising a futuristic Tokyo and crime-drama as backdrops, Psycho-Pass enticed viewers with its aesthetics yet featured deeply ingrained philosophies from humanism to nihilism.

Related reading: Fans of visual novels also need to check out Steins;Gate. Another very intelligent one. Matt's full review.

Gen Urobuchi wasn’t as involved in the production of Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness, but the characters, world, and themes he helped actualise in the animated series are in full-swing in this new video game equivalent once again. These core attributes translate perfectly to a new medium and it’s something to behold. Psycho-Pass is a series filled to the brim with compelling characters, but it’s always the well-defined world itself that conjures reasons for them to interact. It cunningly broaches the subjects of authority and ethics in the coming century.

Psycho-Pass is set in a future wherein technology has become the crux of social order, guiding citizens with an oracle of sorts christened “the Sibyl System”. This digital consciousness measures the populace’s personalities through scanning and analysis. Thus, questions ranging from life-changing (“what career is best for me?”) to arbitrary (“what colour dress should I wear tonight?”) can be answered on a whim by objectivity and intelligence surpassing any single human. Decision-making has never been so easy and lives have newfound direction.

PlayStation 4 game review

This Sibyl System also enables new-age law enforcement. Since machinery can express personalities (defects and all) through rudimentary means like numbers and colours, scanners are placed on every street corner to ensure the health of the populace. Sibyl regularly prevents crimes not just before a trigger is pulled but before mental health deteriorates. If your number soars over 100, that makes you a latent criminal subject to prosecution. Protocols determine what course of action the Ministry of Welfare's Public Safety Bureau (MWPSB for short…or “police”, really) should take on would-be criminals, ranging from expulsion from society to lethal force. Issues such as police brutality are near-irrelevant since guns (called Dominators) only fire at identified criminals and inflicting pain would alter one’s reading. On the surface, all is well.

It’s plain to see how vigilantly society has been safeguarded by employing technology. The Sibyl System means that Tokyo is more prosperous than any other period in history and boasts a crime rate just shy of zero. In case it’s not eerily apparent, however, "innocent until proven guilty" is a dead mantra in Psycho-Pass. The livelihood of the blameless hinges on technology being an absolute judge of character and it’s assumed that its intent always aligns with humanity. Mandatory Happiness goes on to question the reliability of Sibyl by introducing a vigilante who is undetectable by scanners and forcibly improves the readings of others. Naturally, the system’s vulnerabilities are exploited and order deteriorates into chaos, leaving the player to ponder the fictitious Tokyo’s direction from the perspective of a detective on the inside. This means witnessing the best - and worst - the system has to offer. 

Players must solve crimes vicariously as a member of the MWPSB, either through the lens of Nadeshiko Kugatachi or Takuma Tsurugi. The former is an amnesiac woman with a level-head placed in a position of power (an Inspector in charge of various officers). By the book and logical to a fault, her cohorts perceive her as something of a lifeless android despite her track record of success. Meanwhile, Tsurugi is a jovial former criminal (an Enforcer working as a subordinate to Inspectors). He’s got a chequered past but a heart of gold, flying off the handle in the name of his own brand of justice and lamenting over situations that could have panned out better. Their juxtaposing personalities bounce off each other well and, at times, they outright personify opposing stances toward criminal justice. Neither character actually appeared in the animated series, but their role here works wonders in meaningfully expanding the Psycho-Pass universe.

PlayStation 4 visual novel review

The game is divided into separate cases that build off each other, not unlike the original anime, and each one is fairly extensive. “Extensive” is especially true of the verbiage. You can probably tell by now that this visual novel has an abundance of jargon and world-building to absorb, so a viewing of the TV show will definitely complement Mandatory Happiness. That being said, it isn't essential since the game includes a handy terminology list. The sense of characterisation is strong too, allowing all parties to shine despite the lack of thorough backstories here.

Rather, the real reason you'll want to check out the anime is to contrast its antagonist, Shougo Makishima, with this game's equivalent, an artificial intelligence named Alpha. Clad in the cyborg body of a teenager, Alpha is that special kind of adversary who, instead of cackling maniacally, drives the plot forward with a smile and an earnest mission to grant happiness to all. Like his anime counterpart, Alpha cannot be judged by the Sibyl System. He swaps Makishima’s charisma and ruthlessness for an utterly captivating brand of naivety. His methods begin as infantile, encouraging a young man to exercise his freedom selfishly and then watching as that liberty tears down not just his own happiness but multiple lives. Shortly thereafter, he concludes that humans must be on the same page to keep from imploding, but goes about spreading “happiness” in a form that is too primal in form to be considered universal. These personal experiences go on to shape Alpha’s psyche and form the basis for emotions such empathy. He's ever-evolving and remarkably human.

The result is a “villain”, who, when not drugging teenagers and pulverising officers in pursuit of righteousness, comes off as tragically sympathetic. He stews over definitions of joy from philosophers, namely Sigmund Freud, and works to actualise these on a wider scale. Like Freud saw happiness as the fulfillment of primal desires, Alpha wants to drug humans into a state of permanent euphoria. His radical methods do indeed elicit pleasure, but he is criticised and becomes puzzled by the value free will. With all the misdirection people from all walks experience, why wouldn’t a machine see free will as counterproductive greediness? The pursuit of desires drives many people into misery, after all. Without getting too pretentious here, Alpha’s struggle serves to perpetuate the idea that technology will never fulfill humanity’s innermost needs because humanity is so splintered it cannot understand itself. Despite acting in opposition to Sibyl, Alpha illustrates the same failings of the more logical, calculating entity.

Visual novel game review

The TV show articulated that Sibyl has its faults as well, but the thrill of Mandatory Happiness is that players get to experience these up close and personal. This is one of those visual novels that takes advantage of the digital medium to be a fluid “choose your own adventure” of sorts, teeming with decision-making at every turn. Regardless of what choice you make however, the narrative remains a resoundingly consistent one. You’re still going to be blowing potentially salvageable criminals to kingdom come and encounter situations where the options are merely “bad” or “worse”.

And yet, should you pick the “worse” option in any given scenario, your Hue (a coloured indicator of general stress) will darken and you will slide down the slippery road of becoming a latent criminal. Hitting the point of no return forces either a rushed ending equivalent to a Game Over or a demotion that spins the storyline in a new direction entirely. Thus, decision making is more than a roll of the dice and has tangible weight behind it besides hunting down alternate endings for variety’s sake. The more traditionally “game-like” elements of Mandatory Happiness alter the player’s thought process and so players must think as if they were legitimately living under the Sibyl System. It’s a rare type of immersion you’re not likely to witness in other visual novels, that's for certain.

Seeing how the decisions affect the protagonist's Hue helps outline what the Sibyl System perceives as advantageous to society. An action might aid all parties involved but the player winds up penalised for experiencing anxiety and straying from the system's expectations of what the self “should” do. One situation early on sees the prevention of injury and property damage through perfectly legal means, but the player is reprimanded. In fact, the playable Takuma Tsurugi outright establishes in a conversation that, even though the act of stressing is considered detrimental to mental health readings, pressure can yield positive results otherwise impossible. Intuition and free-thinking is instrumental in saving lives in a timely manner and the player is guaranteed to discover this first-hand.

Anime visual novel game review

The game hits its emotional peaks when Sibyl forces players, through their chosen characters, to commit some truly wretched acts such as shooting children in the name of righteousness. As you can imagine, Mandatory Happiness sometimes fails miserably at the “being fun" category and the game's title graduates to a piece of dark, ironic humour. Players will feel compromised for all the wrong reasons as they face both the power and futility of their agency in a world where government is so intrusive. This is not a game for the faint of heart. Psycho-Pass succeeds not in spite of its unpleasantness but because of it.

I’m not about to pretend Mandatory Happiness didn’t disappoint me in a few select areas. Like the show on which it’s based, the script occasionally tackles subjects a tad too head-on, leaving little in the way of subtlety; characters are prone to namedropping philosophers rather than leaving the player to reflect on the situations presented themselves. On the plus side, this does encourage further reading and I suspect intrigued audiences will get a hankering to finally read George Orwell’s 1984. The relative lack of gore compared to the anime is understandable, but I would argue its absence hampers the emotional impact of the main characters blowing people to smithereens. The anime had brief but revolting fireworks of blood that would make Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star blush, which painted the brutal consequences of ending lives.

At the same time, this game’s ideas are so rich and fully realised that it’s impossible to walk away without being challenged by the clashing political views on display. The insight into how society can better itself is too profound to ignore. Thanks to many facets that directly oppose each other (specifically the two main characters) and some that operate outside the extremes entirely, the game manages to juggle numerous worldly perspectives with tact. Depending on your viewpoint, the Sibyl System could be seen as anything from civilization’s logical evolution to freedom-siphoning parasite to necessary evil. One playthrough will not suffice to fully explore this, however, and you’ll want to play as both and Inspector and an Enforcer the get the full tour of future Tokyo.

Essential visual novel on PlayStation 4

In terms of presentation, the visual novel format does a respectable job of replicating the aesthetic charm of the source material. The technology-driven animations make dialogue boxes positively shimmer with polish and bring a world of still images to life. For times when players need a breather from the onslaught of philosophy, there's even a little puzzle game included in the package. I expected a derivative match-three puzzler, but it’s surprisingly worth booting up the PS4 for all on its own. It takes age-old sliding block puzzles and infuses a touch of math and infectious music to create an addictive time vampire. Every move counts and you’ll need forethought to rack up high scores in the endless mode. Like the main event itself, even this distraction encourages players to legitimately think.

Related reading: Danganronpa is the finest visual novel ever created (and #3 on our top 100 games of all time). Matt's full review.

Psycho-Pass had appeal that rightfully extended outside of immediate anime fans. If you aren’t shallow enough to dismiss a visual novel for lacking “gameplay”, Mandatory Happiness retains that same charisma and offers a controversial but rewarding storytelling package. The anti-crime measures employed in Psycho-Pass are fascinating and worthy of analysis in and of themselves, but the central antagonist of this game furthers the show’s ethical dilemmas in wholly fresh contexts. It isn’t just a rare example of a fantastic anime game but feels like a re-imagining that is, in some respects, superior to the source material. Poignant and dense, Mandatory Happiness is a game that will require additional runs to absorb but only one to be endlessly captivated.

- Clark A.
Anime Editor
Review: Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness (Sony PlayStation 4)
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