Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Aeronauts

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Historical film about record-setting balloon flight back in 1860s Britain. Fairly enjoyable with a good atmosphere and effects.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Kingdom Hearts Final Mix

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Heartless of Darkness

The idea for Disney and Square-Enix’s (formerly Squaresoft’s) crossover Kingdom Hearts franchise began with a meeting in an elevator between executives from both companies, resulting in the first entry for the PlayStation 2 seeing release in Japan and overseas to commercial and critical success. The game would receive a sequel at the end of the PS2’s lifespan, before which was an interquel game, Chain of Memories, released initially on the GameBoy Advance and later remade for the system as part of the sequel’s “Final Mix” version as Re:Chain of Memories, released standalone in North America.

During the PlayStation 3 era, Square-Enix would release high-definition collections of the games, which gave North American gamers access to the exclusive added content of the Final Mix versions initially confined to Japan. They would later port these HD collections to the PlayStation 4, and collect all games and cutscenes from some of the gaidens as The Story So Far in anticipation of the development hell-plagued third entry for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Does the latest iteration of the first game’s international version, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, still hold up today, along with its accompanying crossover formula?

The first game opens with a cutscene about spiky-haired protagonist Sora having “weird” thoughts of falling through water, following which is a dream sequence that determines combat capability and stat advancement. He lives on Destiny Islands with his love interest Kairi and Final Fantasy characters Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie, and while Rikku doesn’t show up, the writers took her name, shaved off a ‘k’, and tagged it onto Sora’s at first-friendly rival Riku, with whom the spike-haired hero “keeps score.” Destiny Islands eventually succumbs to creatures known as the Heartless and the darkness itself, Sora becoming master of a blunt key-shaped weapon known as the Keyblade.

Meanwhile, Donald Duck and Goofy find King Mickey to be missing, and thus begin a search across various Disney-themed (and on occasional original) worlds in search of him, with Sora simultaneously seeking Kairi, although these goals don’t seem terribly urgent, and many areas rehash the stories of Disney’s animated films, with the Heartless worked in somehow. Crossovers rarely make for great storytelling, especially when they expect audiences to take them seriously, and the humor that makes most Disney features bearable for older audiences is virtually nonexistent, the scenario writers seeming to only keep kids in mind.

The narrative is also horrendously derivative. The ideas of the battle between light and dark, and “the chosen one” stem from Star Wars, and the principle of not “meddling” in the affairs of other worlds (which Sora, Donald and Goofy routinely violate), echoes the Prime Directive of Star Trek. The themes of hearts and darkness seem as well to come from the Care Bears mythos, and the ideals of the power of love and friendship, friends-turned-rivals, and such, derive from other RPGs, with the Final Fantasy characters not helping, their appearance serving little purpose other than fanservice.

Sadly, the story isn’t bad in an enjoyable way, but rather in an excruciating fashion, and can actually make the game somewhat embarrassing to play for adults. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any redeeming aspects in the narrative, since the base mythos, stemming from collectable Ansem Reports, is generally okay, and the ending is satisfying whilst leaving room for sequels and spinoffs. The game’s attempt to weave a serious narrative with cartoon characters largely involved is what chiefly hurts it, with Kingdom Hearts more following the Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue school of crossovers than the Roger Rabbit school.

The localization is definitely an admirable effort, given the general lack of spelling and grammar errors (with maybe one misused punctuation mark) and that the Disney characters have fitting dialogue, but does have its blemishes such as the failed attempts at many points to match lips with spoken text, oftentimes resulting in kaiju film-esque lip-flapping. The game is also full of cliched dialogue about hearts, light, and darkness, and the translation team could have made an effort to actually localize the Japanese names of the original characters, given their lack of visible Asian heritage and things like there already being a Square-Enix character named Rikku.

Thankfully, the gameplay somewhat redeems what issues the story has, with Sora able to hack away at the enemy with the various Keyblades he acquires throughout his quest, and combat combining menu-based and real-time elements. Selecting the “Attack” command on the battle menu on the lower left of the screen executes his standard assaults, the player able to string combos against Heartless that special skills that require a certain amount of finite Ability Points (AP) to equip can lengthen. Other AP abilities include dodge roll, which can actually be useful, and a guard option, which unfortunately requires timing and is generally not critical to success.

Sora can also cast magic that acquires occasional upgrades throughout his adventure, the player able to assign three to shortcuts for easier access, although one more slot akin to the first numbered sequel would have been nice, as would have been the ability to assign items to said shortcuts, since going through the battle menu doesn’t pause the action of combat. Some have likened combat in Kingdom Hearts to the active-time battles of the Final Fantasy series, and thus, a “Wait” option that halted the action during battle while navigating the menu or changing enemy targets would have helped.

Combat can emphasize button-mashing, but one improvement over the original is that special attacks that in the initial incarnation would have required quick menu navigation are now accessible through use of the triangle button. Increasing the button mashing, though, is that defeating a Heartless doesn’t automatically adjust targeting, with the player needing to retarget an enemy, which can spoil the flow of battle. The camera can also be a nuisance at times, especially when close to walls, and Sora’s AI-controlled allies may occasional do artificially-stupid things such as attacking petrified enemies.

Manual control of Sora’s allies would have been welcome, as well (and perhaps a multiplayer feature), and I highly recommend adjusting their settings so that they don’t constantly squander magic points and items, although luckily, when they lose all HP, standard healing brings them back into the action of battle. Sora also continually bounces around whilst attacking, and this sometimes doesn’t mesh well with the platform-laden dungeon design, with careless moves resulting in the need to retrace progress through levels. Regardless, the gameplay is generally fun, and younger players will appreciate the more forgiving nature of Beginner mode than in prior versions of the game.

Control, however, has more issues, such as the poor direction at times on how to advance the central storyline, especially early on in the game when players could waste time endlessly wandering finding out exactly how to move forward. Maps of areas would have been nice, as well, and platforming, as mentioned, sometimes doesn’t mesh well with combat. Moreover, sure to alienate hearing-impaired gamers is that most cutscene text is unskippable, although players can fully skip the scenes themselves. Some of the minigames, however, such as the gummi ship levels necessary to visit new worlds, are somewhat enjoyable, and in the end, interaction isn’t as bad as it could have been.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the original game is its aural presentation, with a central theme in the form of “Simple and Clean,” which has a few remixes throughout the quest, although the lyrics are somewhat asinine. The title screen theme, “Dearly Beloved,” and its remixes, are also superb, and most worlds have their own music, not to mention their own battle themes, solving the typical JRPG problem of repetitive combat music. Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack overall is excellent, as are her non-vocal remixes of some themes native to the Disney films. The voice performances are also good, with the various Disney characters sounding as they should, although characters such as Donald and Goofy create a tonal dissonance with the game’s serious plot, and I actually found myself playing with headphones.

The visuals also have many things going for them, with the original game adopting a graphical style that’s neither fully realistic nor fully cartoony, and the CG animated cutscenes that pop up occasionally look superb, as is expectant of a game of the current generation. The character models more or less resemble character designer Tetsuya Nomura’s designs, and contain appropriate anatomy. The colors are generally pleasing, although many environments have blurry, pixilated textures when seen close-up, and there is plenty of pop-up during the gummi ship sequences. There’s also occasional poor collision detection between models and objects at times, but the graphics are definitely passable.

Finally, a playthrough of the game can take as little as twelve hours when viewing all the cutscenes, although skipping them can potentially lower playtime to nine hours, and given the game’s length, alongside things such as the different playstyles formulated when starting a new game, alongside things such as trophies, side content, and so forth, there is plenty of lasting appeal, although a New Game+ would have definitely been welcome.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix definitely has some remarkable aspects, such as the often-enjoyable nature of Keyblade combat, the superb aural presentation, and plentiful lasting appeal, although it does have some serious issues with things such as the combat and camera not meshing well at points with the dungeon design, the inconsistent graphical quality, and especially its infantile storyline and writing. The accommodating nature of the Beginner difficulty setting, however, is sure to appeal to younger audiences seeking a diving board into the Japanese RPG genre, and I would definitely recommend the game to said players.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version included with Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far on Beginner Mode.

The Good:
+Keyblade combat can be fun.
+Superb sound.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Combat and camera sometimes don’t mesh well with level design.
-Infantile story and writing.
-Inconsistent graphical quality.

The Bottom Line:
A great JRPG for kids; for adults, not so much.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 6.5/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 1.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 6.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 9-18 Hours

Overall: 6.0/10

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity

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All Aeque Dogs Go to Heaven

Towards the end of the original PlayStation’s lifespan, Atlus published the MaxFive-developed tactical RPG Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth, with aficionados of the strategy roleplaying subgenre hotly anticipating it as a rival to the allegedly-infallible Final Fantasy Tactics. However, the game didn’t receive the best of reception, given its steep learning curve and imposing difficulty, and largely fell forgotten among the roleplaying game community. During the following console generation, MaxFive’s successor, Pinegrow, developed Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity, which bequeaths elements from its spiritual predecessor into a more playable, moderately-enjoyable package.

Stella Deus focuses on protagonist Spero (rhymes with “hero”), who goes on a quest with his companions to revive the dying world of Solum by opening the subtitular Gate of Eternity whilst battling the overlord Dignus and his subordinates. The narrative is enjoyable for the most part, with the story characters containing decent development and relevance towards the plot, with a bit of a focus on environmental themes and good sociopolitical commentary. The (mostly) positive portrayal of religion is also a nice break from JRPG storylines that tend to depict theology negatively. There are some occasional clichĂ©s such as the dying world and rebellion against the Imperial Legion, but otherwise, the plotline is a good driving factor throughout the game.

Atlus, as usual, did a nice job with the localization, with the storyline being coherent for the most part, and the dialogue during cutscenes largely sounding natural, and even the battle quotes actually sounding realistic and believable for the most part, with lines such as Grey’s “Lucky shot!” when dying. Some of the quotations such as Avis’s “But a flesh wound!” bring to mind Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there are some occasional odd names such as Dignus (which sounds dangerously close to “dingus”), but otherwise, the translation is pretty much on par with Atlus’s other efforts.

One of the best features of the gameplay of Stella Deus is that, unlike some of its other tactical brethren such as Final Fantasy Tactics, there are NO RANDOM ENCOUNTERS. Rather, players accomplish all supplementary leveling through occasional guild missions and the Catacombs, which has up to sixty floors (ten additional ones unlocked through a sidequest), where the number of each level corresponds to the levels of all the enemies in their respective battlegrounds. The levels of enemies in the storyline battles, mercifully, don’t scale with those of the player’s characters throughout the game.

At the outset of each battle, the player deploys a party of up to six characters onto the battlefield (their positions viewable unlike in the almighty Final Fantasy Tactics), and begins the fight, characters and enemies (which tend to outnumber PCs) taking turns depending upon their speed, Action Points (AP) dictating how many and what commands they can use when they reach their turn, and a turn order meter mercifully showing who goes when. When they draw near to one another, the player’s characters and the enemy can execute a number of different commands, again depending upon their remaining AP.

Commands include attacking normally, using Magic Point (MP)-consuming abilities, using equipped consumable items (with Stella Deus imposing a Suikoden-esque choice between equipping up to four accessories or consumables, mixable or matchable), or spending remaining AP to delay their next turns, useful in giving low-level characters more of a chance to grind. Speaking of which, characters acquire experience from successful performance of most actions, with a hundred points necessary to level up, consequentially increasing stats all-around. Special items can increase ranks for characters, letting them learn and equip more skills (the number they can take into battle being finite).

Characters learn abilities through Skill Points acquired alongside performing actions in battle, initially able to equip up to two that consume MP, although this increases to three and four depending upon their rank. The story characters can rank up three times with their highest ranks acquired through sidequests, and in Spero’s case advancing the central narrative far enough. They can also equip three passive skills dictating things such as resistance to status ailments and increased defense, resistance to magic, and the like. Finally, each can have one “zone” ability performing things such as giving the equipper and those nearby increased evasion, increasing attack costs for foes, and so forth.

Winning battles nets the player money alongside occasional items, and depending upon the situation, the story advances, they may return to the map screen, or they may have to fight another battle immediately afterward, depending on the narrative structure, with some points having up to three consecutive conflicts. However, what makes Stella Deus, like many other strategy RPGs including the aforementioned Final Fantasy Tactics, somewhat inaccessible to mainstream gamers is the all-or-nothing reward mechanics, where death results in a Game Over and no experience retained, which can really sting in the case of longer battles.

There’s also a bit of fatigue regarding the sheer number of recruitable characters, and it would have been nice to be able to use more of them, given that enemies can mostly outnumber the player’s characters, instead of having to bench most of them. Regardless, the gameplay does have its share of redeeming aspects, including the mentioned absence of random encounters, the meaningfulness of grinding (although players may need to do this fairly often), the forecast of attack effectiveness, the general straightforwardness of the mechanics, and a mid-battle suspend save that’s handy whenever players experience real-life interruptions.

The total lack of random encounters makes travel across the dot-connected overworld stress-free, and there’s clear indication on where to go next to advance the main storyline that a glowing red dot signifies. The menus are generally easy to work with, although an equipment wizard to auto-equip the best gear on all characters a la the first two Star Ocean games would have been welcome, given the size of the cast. Shopping allows players to “fit” equipment onto characters before purchasing it, and the guild missions have decent direction, although in-game tracking of fusion recipes would have been nice. Despite the niggling issues, the Stella Deus interfaces decently with players.

Partners in crime Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, renowned for their work on the Ivalice Alliance Final Fantasies, scored the game, and sounds superb for the most part, notable tracks including the Indiana Jones-esque main battle theme, the other sweeping epic combat tracks, the accordion-laden shopping theme, the booming overworld theme, and so forth. Granted, there are some occasional technical issues with how the music plays, with many tracks having audible pauses and looping, and the score can sometimes drown out battle voices, although this actually isn’t that big an issue since the English voicework isn’t all that great.

However, Stella Deus is, to date, one of the best-looking strategy RPGs I’ve had the pleasure of playing, with the visuals having aged well, given the emphasis of bleached hues to signify a world being devoured by the Miasma, and the art direction is both unique and superb, with all character sprites resembling their respective portraits more or less. The rare cel-shaded CG cutscenes also look nice, and I would definitely see an animated film with such a style. The animation of sprites in battle is fluid as well, with some nice ability effects, although there are cases of them being mirror images depending on the camera, with Adara’s amputation, for instance, changing sides. Still, the game looks amazing even today.

Finally, total playtime is fairly lengthy, about two to three days’ worth, and while there is significant side content such as the guild missions and potential variations on the plotline, the game is a bit long to warrant another playthrough.

Overall, Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity is for the most part a half-decent entry-level strategy RPG, given the straightforwardness of its mechanisms, the most significant redeeming aspect of combat being the total absence of random encounter, the general tight control, the intriguing story with polished translation, the excellent soundtrack, and superb art direction. Granted, it does suffer from many of the negative gameplay tropes of Japanese tactical RPGs such as the all-or-nothing reward mechanics, there are technical issues with how the music plays, the English voicework won’t win awards, and it’s a bit too long, but it’s far from the rape case certain other reviewers at a site whose name rhymes with “Cosmo Kramer” have made it out to be, and warrants a look, if nothing more.

The Good:
+No. Random. Encounters.
+Tight control.
+Intriguing story and polished localization.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Looks good even today.
+Significant side content.

The Bad:
-Some marathon battles.
-All-or-nothing battle reward mechanisms.
-A bit of playable character fatigue.
-Some technical issues with music.
-Weak English voicework.
-A bit too long.

The Bottom Line:
An okay entry-level tactical RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 6.0/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.0/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 2-3 Days

Overall: 7.0/10