Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Banner Saga Trilogy (Nintendo Switch)

The Banner Saga Trilogy Box Front

Kickstarter campaigns have become commonplace for videogames nowadays, prominent ones including the forthcoming third Shenmue game and the Metroidvania Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Ex-BioWare employees founded Stoic Studio, whose debut game was The Banner Saga, a tactical roleplaying game inspired by Norse mythology, and which saw initial limited release, although ports to other platforms ultimately followed. It would receive two sequels, all three games becoming available on the Nintendo Switch as The Banner Saga Trilogy, which is a great way to experience the games at home or on the go.

The trilogy follows two different sets of characters that travel the world whilst dealing with an antagonistic race known as the Dredge, with story scenes and Oregon Trail-esque wayfaring sequences with factors to consider such as tribe morale and supply consumption after entire days have elapsed. In most cases, if morale falls to an unsatisfactory level, the player can break from travel by setting up camp and resting for as many days as supplies allow, with above-average morale having benefits to combat, although the player must be wise about their supplies since there are finite opportunities to purchase them through points known as Renown.

Players will occasionally have to fight battles where they arrange the offensive party of up to six characters in a formation determining turn order, with the trilogy, unlike most other strategy RPGs, having its unique take on turn order, where one of the player’s characters executes their turn and then one of the enemy’s, with the process repeating until the first character in the player’s formation gets their next turn. The player can move their characters around the battlefield, and have a number of options such as attacks on the enemy’s strength, which determines attack power and health, or defense, dictating resistance to attacks.

Some units such as the giant horned humanoid varl take up four spaces, although most units such as humans and centaurs take up just one. Killing enemies grants the player Renown they can use to promote characters to advanced levels or use to purchase supplies or accessories from marketplaces, each character needing to secure a certain number of kills to be promotable. Upon promotion, the player can invest two points into a character’s different stats, each with a cap that when reached allows players to put points into innate abilities that dictate things such as supplemental defense.

Eliminating all but one enemy unit puts the battle into pillage mode, where all the player’s characters have their turns right after one another while the remaining foe just has one turn, the same going for instances where only one of the player’s units remains. In all but maybe one case in the first game (its final two battles), the demise of all the player’s units doesn’t result in a game over, but rather a continuation of the trilogy’s plotline, with difficulties higher than the easiest option necessitating defeated player units rest until they are able to fight again.

All in all, the trilogy’s take on tactical RPGs is definitely a breath of fresh air in the subgenre given the unique consequences of failing fights, and one can potentially see actual endings and credits without even winning the final battles of the games. Much like the original Final Fantasy Tactics, though, the trilogy features ratchet character movement, although moving the cursor on tiles fortunately clues players into how much damage to strength they can deal enemies before moving to them. There are a few interface obstructions, as well, but the battle system is definitely a boon to the games.

Control is perhaps the trilogy’s weakest link, with an absence of things such as a game clock in any of the games, but most of all an utter lack of indication as to whether the game is saving or not, with no manual option to record progress at all, making it a crapshoot in some cases as to whether the game will preserve things such as leveling characters before quitting the game. There are also some rare freezes, but fortunately, given the trilogy’s linear structure, it’s impossible to get lost, and while interaction has its issues, they’re by no means deal-breaking.

The characters and story are generally well-developed, with endless choices throughout the trilogy that actually have some impact on the plotline, with the potential for variable endings, as well. There are some rare and odd stylistic choices in the dialogue such as a use of “ok” rather than “okay,” but the narrative is definitely a reason to play.

Austin Wintory composes the trilogy’s soundtrack, which has a nice sweeping epic feel in many cases, and the voicework, if present, is superb, but there are some frequent silent portions in the games.

The trilogy sports a visual style inspired by animators such as Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth, and generally looks pleasant, although there is occasional slowdown and choppiness in the case of many character models populating the screen.

Finally, each game is roughly six hours long, the player able to transfer data between games to preserve choices made.

Overall, The Banner Saga Trilogy was a definite and welcome surprise for this reviewer, who hasn’t had very much experience with Western tactical RPGs aside from Gladius (which wasn’t wholly positive), and is generally skeptical of titles that receive widespread critical acclaim. The battle system, for one, leaves plenty of room for error regardless of the chosen difficulty level, narrative choices made actually matter, the soundtrack is surprisingly good for a Western RPG, and the visual style is generally pleasing. There are, however, some instances where it falters, particularly with its lack of manual saving and some minor issues with sound and sight, but it’s definitely worth a look by tactical RPG aficionados and newcomers to the subgenre.

The Good:
+Enjoyable tactical gameplay with adjustable difficulty.
+Great branching plotline.
+Nice soundtrack.
+Gorgeous art direction.

The Bad:
-No manual saving or indication of.
-A few interface issues.
-Some silent portions.
-Graphical choppiness at some points.

The Bottom Line:
A great way to experience the strategy RPG trilogy.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 9/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: ~6 Hours per Game

Overall: 8.5/10

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Preludes to War

Preludes to War by Joe     Jackson

The sixth entry of author Joe Jackson’s Eve of Redemption series opens with protagonist Karian Vanador watching her children play, having recently lost her husband Grakin to Dracon’s Bane, although the recent birth of her nieces has somewhat soothed the pain of loss, along with the friendship of a Warlord named Kris. Kari fears war with Mehr’Durillia, and agrees to meet King Morduri Irrasitus by his request of debt to him being due. The main antagonist of the series and an Overlord, Sekassus, is on the hunt for Kari, who battles several of his sons throughout the narrative.

Kari soon joins her companion Seanada and another named the Wraith (whose past he reveals later on) in Mehr’Durillia, agreeing to save threatened vulkinastra, Kari eventually undergoing the process of being turned into a mallasti to conceal her identity. As she crusades against demon princes, Kari occasionally attempts to rally townsfolk to her cause, with mixed results, and receives the occasional peace deal from demon monarchs. Several fights erupt with netherwordly princes, Seanada by her side, and eventually returns to her homeworld, with the story ending on a somewhat bittersweet note.

Overall, this is another enjoyable story in the series, with plenty of well-described action that kept this reader engaged, occasional romance, given Kari’s late husband’s wish not to mourn him forever, and some political intrigue. Given the many races in the series, however, one can somewhat find it difficult to keep track of their defining features, although the appendices after the main text somewhat alleviate this issue. In spite of its shortcomings, this reviewer has definitely been enjoying this dragon fantasy series, and very much looks forward to reading the next entry.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Commision by Horrified

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody poster.png

Haven't seen many biopics, but this one was fairly enjoyable, and follows the band Queen beginning in 1970 and ending at Live Aid in 1985. Great music, as was expected.

Art by Inkohaulyc-1

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Bravely Second: End Layer

Square-Enix’s Bravely Default originally started development as a sequel to Final Fantasy spinoff The 4 Heroes of Light, although it ultimately became a Divorced Installment, one that received positive reception in and out of Japan. Naturally, developer Silicon Studio produced a sequel like its predecessor on the Nintendo 3DS entitled Bravely Second: End Layer, which for the most part rectifies the issues of its precursor, and while some new problems abound, the second entry in some respects shows that Square-Enix somewhat listened to the positive and negative points of its prequel’s reception.

The four playable characters, two new and two returning, begin as Freelancers, although players eventually gain access to a variety of different classes, such as a great many magical types specializing in specific kinds of magic (with new spells of these sundry varieties buyable from shops), and jobs centered around melee abilities. Bravely Second for the most part follows the same gameplay rules as its predecessors, with each character able to Default (or defend) to build up Brave Points to expend to perform up to four consecutive commands during their turn, with negative Brave Points necessitating said ally wait a certain number of rounds until their Brave Points break even at zero.

A new mechanics is that if a player wins a battle in one round (except in battles where enemies gain a preemptive strike), they can continue to a consecutive battle where, if they win, experience and job points multiply, repeatable until encountering a fight that takes more than one round, which can be handy in leveling (and the game is nice enough to indicate recommended level ranges within each dungeon). As with before, the encounter rate is adjustable (albeit fixed in some instances like early in the game and in one dungeon), and selectable difficulty accommodates players of different skills. Overall, the gameplay tends to work well, with only minor issues involving the tedium of adjusting auto-battle commands.

In regards to control, things are for the most part superficially good, with things such as automaps for dungeons, an item allowing the player to return to the entrance of a dungeon and leave prematurely, easy shopping, seeing how equipment increases and decreases stats before buying it, and so on. However, while the game does a nice job for the most part telling players where to go next to advance the storyline, there is one point that leaves players completely in the dark about how to do so, with the solution not really obvious and driving this reviewer to use a guide, something no one should ever have to do when playing a game. In the end, interaction somewhat stumbles.

The narrative, however, stumbles even more, since, alongside the aforementioned poor direction, it doesn’t really break new ground in the RPG genre, and some people might find themselves lost if they haven’t played the first game or waited a long time before picking up its sequel. The translation is mostly good, although it somewhat goes overboard with pun-filled names, odd since the story itself doesn’t really have much humor, and there are some occasional oddities such as “coup de gravy,” Edea’s horribly-unnatural grumbling “mrgrgr” (“mur-gur-gur”), lots of untranslated French phrases, and the like. Ultimately, the plot is largely a deterrent.

Like its predecessor, however, Bravely Second has a solid soundtrack with many superb tunes like the first town theme, and players have a choice between Japanese and English voices, a boon since the latter leaves plenty to desire, with many annoying characters and incongruities such as newcomer Magnolia’s peppering her speech with French phrases despite not having a normal Francophone accent. There are also some silent parts such as towns at night, although the sound is generally great.

The visuals are largely the same as they were in the first game, not a bad thing since they generally look nice, with good use of 3-D and towns having prerendered styles that occasionally move around as the player navigates them, although, as with many other aspects, there exist some oddities, such as characters, during cutscenes, constantly flapping their lips even during dialogue pauses, and eating with no utensils or food in sight, not to mention city scenery appearing pixilated when the camera zooms in to the models.

Finally, the sequel is about a one-to-two-day game, with plenty sidequests and a New Game+ mode to prolong playtime.

In the end, Bravely Second is a solid sequel that mostly hits the right nodes regarding its gameplay that effectively builds upon its predecessor’s mechanisms, significantly-lightened repetition, solid soundtrack, pretty visuals, and plentiful lasting appeal. However, it still has issues such as one significant area of cluelessness regarding how to advance, the dry narrative, some issues with the localization, the weak English voicework, and some occasional graphical anomalies. Regardless, those that enjoyed the first game will most likely enjoy its sequel, and hopefully its developer will learn more from the game and produce an even-more-refined third entry.

The Good:
+Combat very well builds on that from first game.
+Eases up on first game’s repetition.
+Great soundtrack.
+Nice visuals.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Some occasional poor direction.
-Dry storyline.
-Some translation issues.
-Weak English voicework.
-Graphics more or less the same.

The Bottom Line:
An improved sequel.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 5/10
Localization: 7/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 8/10

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Huntresses' Game

The Huntresses' Game by Joe     Jackson

In the fifth entry of author Joe Jackson’s Eve of Redemption series, protagonist Kari has a recurring dream where she fights alongside a colleague that had been turned into a vampire, Annabelle, her reverie ending with her neck being bitten. Back in the real world, Kari regrets not killing her former friend when she had the chance, goes to the Demonhunter Order campus to train recruits, and thinks about the Demon Prince Taesenus crippling her brother-in-law Typhonix, Ty for short, although he proves to be shrewd at managing his sister-in-law’s estate. Kari, in the meantime, is on the brink of attaining the highest rank in the Order, that of Avatar of Vengeance.

Unfortunately for Kari, she can’t train her recruits due to rain, and instead does admin work and brushes up on the journals of Jason Bosimar. She thinks about Annabelle being the final roadblock before becoming Avatar of Vengeance, and knows her husband Grakin is dying from Dracon’s Bane. She receives an invite to King Koursturaux’s court, a gift suggestion being sheet music by a musician called The Ivory Maestro, given the ironically-female King’s love for playing piano. Kari brings her newborn daughter Uldriana on her trip to the demon king’s court, and is shown the rope of Koursturaux’s home.

Kari goes hunting with the demon king and even spars with her, with the two having a hostile conversation before they separate and Kari returns home. Her brother-in-law Aeligos joins her on her trip to Fort Sabbath to scout the enemy, having a few encounters with Annabelle before their final confrontation and battling a dragon named Zaliskower, as well. Before the final conflicts, Kari goes to the Dragonfire Mountains and passes through a portal into the heavens, where she meets the friendly dragon Alamarise, who plays part in the aforementioned fights.

The story ends on a depressing, yet mildly-hopeful note, with the fifth entry of Jackson’s franchise overall being very much on par with its predecessors, given its well-described and engaging battles, although there are some issues; for instance, it wouldn’t have detracted from the narrative at all to call Koursturaux a queen instead of a king, and as with the yarn’s precursors, some reminders, kennings, and descriptions of the appearances of the important characters would have been welcome so this reviewer could visualize the plot better. Even so, fans of the previous books will likely enjoy the fifth one.

Friday, November 2, 2018

A People's History of the United States


The late Howard Zinn’s unique take on American history grew out of the importance of social movements, with President Lyndon Johnson, for instance, not advancing civil rights alone, and Zinn notes that mainstream history tends to be told from the perspective of government leaders. Some see his chronicle as either optimistic or pessimistic (with this reviewer more believing the latter), the author definitely not hesitant to express his antiwar beliefs. There are some things that he omits or overlooks, such as the arrival of Vikings in the Americas centuries before Columbus, and the eugenics movement in the U.S., but his book definitely has wide appeal.

Zinn opens his history by mentioning that the Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were akin to the indigenous tribes on the American mainland, remarkable for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. When he arrived in the New World, Christopher Columbus was desperate to seek gold, taking some of the natives by force and wanting to get to the Far East. Spain had recently become unified, Turks controlled land routes to Asia, and a sea route was consequentially necessary. While some suggest that Columbus and his successors brought civilization to the New World, great civilizations comparable to those in Europe and Asia had arisen in the Americas, and Columbus’s landing sparked a heavy death toll among the indigenous populations.

The author soon moves on the issue of black slavery in the Americas, which explains perpetual racism within the United States. By the year 1619, a million negroes had already been transported from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves, with Zinn noting the origins of slavery and their conditions. Planters feared slave revolts, and that whites would join them, thus teaching slaves submission, and the writer indicates many conditions that brought about the enslavement of the black man such as starvation of white settlers and black helplessness.

A century before the American Revolution began and when Virginia witnessed its establishment, the colony faced an insurrection of white frontiersmen joined by slaves and servants so serious that the governor fled burning Jamestown, and England sent a thousand soldiers across the Atlantic to keep order among the forty thousand colonists. This was Bacon’s Rebellion, which, from the governor’s testimony, had the overwhelming support of Virginia’s population, indentured servitude being a sort of form of white slavery. Aristocracy arose in the Americas prior to the Revolution, with other skirmishes such as a bread riot in Boston on May 19, 1713.

Around 1776, several luminaries within the English colonies discovered something that would prove useful, that by birthing the United States, they could seize land, profits, and political power from the favorites of the British Empire. After 1763, England proved victorious over France in the Seven Years’ War, known in the Americas as the French and Indian War, expelling the French from North America, thus rendering them no longer a threat to ambitious colonial leaders, who had only the English and the Indians, the latter termed “merciless savages” by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and largely ignored the great inequality of wealth at the time.

The colonists’ victory over the British proved possible due to the former already being heavily-armed, and during the conflict, slavery got in the way in the South, with the poor being reluctant participants in the insurrection. Factors such as economics and Shays’ Rebellion led to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, although the rich and poor division proved a perpetual problem in democratic society, and classes in America remained largely intact. Furthermore, Zinn indicates that despite the Bill of Rights forbidding Congress from infringing on freedoms such as speech, the Sedition Act of 1798 passed by the legislature did just that.

Zinn further indicates that history tends to forget females, with most history told from a male perspective, despite the presence of matriarchal civilizations in the past and the rare female rebels such as Anne Hutchinson. Feminism arose in the early nineteenth century, with women working in places such as textile factories and largely monopolizing the teaching profession, striking a few times, and even joining the abolitionist movement whilst advocating their own rights. Another chapter he dedicates towards Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears to clear the way for the expansion of slavery in the South and railroads throughout the country.

The expansionist President James Polk yearned for more American territory, ultimately inciting the Mexican-American War, with abolitionists and some Whigs opposing the conflict, among them being future President Abraham Lincoln, Zinn indicating a long line of U.S. atrocities during the clash. The United States won the war and more slave states, with the country as a whole becoming addicted to slavery, occasional rebellions and laws against whites fraternizing with blacks arising. Radical abolitionist John Brown knew that bloodshed would resolve the slavery issue, with Lincoln being a crafty politician given his equivocation on the slavery issue and black equality, and conditions for the freedmen not improving much after the Civil War.

Zinn writes of another civil war within America, with the anti-Renter movement in the Hudson Valley spawning in 1839, serving as a protest against the patroonship system back in the 1600s when the Dutch ruled New York. On the eve of the Civil War itself, he further writes, it was money and profit, not the abolitionist movement, that was well within the minds of those who ran the country, with unions striking repeatedly throughout the nineteenth century, even during the divisive conflict, the rich able to avoid military service thanks to the Conscription Act of 1863.

After the Civil War, industrial and political elites in the North and South would organize great economic growth, amidst socialist influence and the occasional terrorism of anarchists, the Populist movement arising and gaining ground in politics. Zinn goes on to write unfavorably about America’s perpetual involvement in foreign affairs, with around 103 such incidents between 1798 and 1895, many politicians like Theodore Roosevelt wanting American to expand its influence, leading to the Spanish-American War and a separate conflict to acquire The Philippines, with labor unions polarized and blacks largely opposing due to their continued lack of freedom following slavery’s abolition.

Socialists would spread influence across American in the early twentieth century, writers such as Upton Sinclair and other “muckrakers,” the whistleblowers of the time, indicating high mortality in various occupations, Sinclair himself writing about the meatpacking industry. Zinn indicates that the eventual Great War, retroactively named World War I, would not show any general gains for humanity other than the redrawing of boundaries. Labor union strikes continued during the conflict, and communist theology would permeate the thought of many within the United States, given the recent rise of the Soviet Union.

Zinn eventually gets to the Second World War, which he indicates was one of the most popular and widely-supported conflicts in the world’s history, given its supposed lack of imperialistic intent, although he notes that economics was the chief concern of the conflict. Although America allied with the Soviet Union during World War II, they would quickly become adversaries, with the former supporting dictatorships across the world in the name of anti-communism, the military-industrial conflict largely taking hold, and Presidents such as JFK not changing this much. Furthermore, the author notes that even if nuclear war were to erupt, it wouldn’t be world-shattering, according to some researchers.

Howard Zinn dedicates a chapter towards the black revolts of the 1950s and 1960s and their passionate contributions to the arts, with the American government reluctant to help those who fought for freedom. He is especially critical of the Vietnam War, indicating the eventual backlash against the conflict and the unpopularity of the U.S.-supported South Vietnam government. In the meantime, women would continue to gain ground in the work force, and prison rebellions would sometimes arise, heralding the need for reform. He highlights an occupation by Native Americans of Alcatraz Island on November 9, 1969, and the minority indigenous population’s contribution to the arts as well.

Trust in the federal government would lesson due to the Watergate scandal, with fewer Americans participating in elections, and Richard Nixon’s successors Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter not changing much. Zinn suggests that most Presidents of the latter half of the twentieth century were apathetic towards grounds such as the poor, and highlights minor resistance to popular military engagements such as the Persian Gulf War and advocation of nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, he indicates that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not due to America’s military might, but gradual over decades.

Zinn is equally critical of the presidency of Bill Clinton, which he indicates made many concessions to the Republican Congress, and the current “War on Terrorism,” indicating past examples where meeting terrorists with military force had just bred more bloodshed. He concludes with an afterward that states his wife was one reason why he wrote the book, further indicating the lack of mention of the massacres of nonwhites by mainstream history books. He ends with a humorous anecdote that Canadians wanted to do an animated series based on his chronicle, and credits generations of scholars with the production of his history book.

Overall, this was definitely an eye-opening narrative of many untold stories in America’s history that effectively transcends political boundaries and tells of the country’s chronicles from the perspective of the most underprivileged groups in American society such as the poor and nonwhites. It’s certainly by no means a perfect chronicle, given the author’s lack of mention of things such as the Vikings’ pre-Colombian adventure into the Americas and the eugenics movement that would find foreign influence in places such as Nazi Germany, but those skeptical of the U.S. as a whole, foreign and domestic, will likely find something to celebrate in this book.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Haikus, November 2018

A series of haikus I wrote as a writers' guild exercise:

“It’s Not Worth Diet Coke”
I once thought the theme
Of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Told of Diet Coke.

“The Chicken Joke”
I’d no idea
The chicken crossed the road since
It sought suicide.

“Grandparental Nomenclature”
I used to think the
Names of my mom’s parents were
Nanny and Poppy.

“Cait Sith”
I had no clue the
Name of the mythical beast
Was pronounced “kett shee.”

“Grilled Cheese”
I once thought grilled cheese
Sandwiches were called “girled cheese.”
Food has no gender.

“Germany Jeremy”
In my youth I thought
Jeremy and Germany
Were one in the same.